Scrambling to rescue a unique but troubled environmental facility under construction, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has warned a nonprofit organization that it has until 1 December to get its act together or face being replaced as contractor on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).
This past Friday the head of NSF’s biology directorate told a congressional panel that NSF has set that deadline for NEON Inc., the Boulder, Colorado–based group overseeing the multisite project aimed at monitoring long-term environmental change across the United States. NEON is trying to stave off a projected $80 million deficit and logistical problems that have already pushed back its originally scheduled completion next fall by more than a year. Last month NSF shrunk the $434 million project, eliminating 15 sites, several planned sensors, and a novel aquatic experiment. And 2 weeks ago NEON Inc. fired its CEO in an attempt to show that it was serious about turning things around.
But NEON isn’t out of the woods, NSF’s James Olds explained to a joint hearing of two subpanels of the U.S. House of Representatives’s science committee, which oversees NSF. “If it is determined that NEON Inc. is not capable of completing construction, NSF will take the necessary actions to pursue alternative management options,” Olds said in his opening statement. Asked later by one legislator if that could mean finding a new contractor, Olds said, “Yes, that is an option.”
The House science committee is already unhappy with NSF’s management of NEON, for which construction began in 2011 after a long debate within the ecological community over how it should be structured. The latest cost overruns, which in a year grew from zero to more than $80 million, seem to support previous warnings from NSF’s independent inspector general about poor oversight practices, problems that the committee explored in previous hearings.
“This hearing should help answer why the NSF and NEON Inc. failed to heed the warning signs that the project was seriously off track,” Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the science committee, said in his opening statement. He warned that the descoping will mean “less science for the same price tag.” And referring to the recent removal of NEON Inc. CEO Russell Lea, Smith said, “I am frankly not sure that change is enough to regain the confidence of this committee or the American people.”
Arizona State University, Tempe, biologist James Collins, chair of NEON Inc.’s board of directors, tried his best to convince legislators that the corporation remains “on a path to achieving the project’s scientific goals.” He gave three reasons for the looming budget overruns: The rising cost of materials for construction and technical challenges in developing the environmental sensors, the difficulty of obtaining all the permits need to build and operate the equipment at each site, and disagreements with NSF on when NEON could begin spending operating funds at a completed site.
“The gap is the result of costs that were underestimated, and NEON Inc. bears its share of the blame,” Collins admitted. But he also suggested that such missteps are par for the course when NSF builds a new major scientific facility. “I should point out that at least five other NSF facilities have undergone scope revisions or management adjustments or instrument reconfigurations,” Collins said. “So in this respect, NEON is not unique.”
But legislators seemed skeptical that NSF and NEON Inc. had finally laid all their cards on the table. “How confident are you that we are finally at the right [budget] figure? … What was ignored in the previous analysis, and why?” asked subcommittee chair Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA). She and other members were especially critical of the fact that NEON had received what Collins called a “clean bill of health” in August 2014 before a succession of audits over the next 9 months uncovered problems that added up to the present $80 million projected cost overrun.
Olds conceded that NSF “could have done a better job.” And he said the foundation “has to strive for all projects to audit cost estimates multiple times so that we are really sure of the numbers.”
Democrats on the panel tried to make the best of a bad situation. “I want to thank you for all the steps you’re taken to put the project back on track,” Representative Donald Beyer (D–VA) told Collins. “And when it comes to accountability … I can also [say] that the head of NEON was fired because of these cost overruns.”
But that management shakeup was too little, too late for some lawmakers. “As CEO, this guy should have known from A to Z how this project was going,” complained Representative Ralph Abraham (R–LA). “The board should have done a better job of vetting this guy.”
Next time will be different, Olds promised. “We are going to be sitting on NEON Inc. over the next 3 months and putting them through some pretty difficult hoops,” he told the legislators. “And we will know pretty quickly if this organization will be successful under new leadership in changing its course. And if they aren’t, we’ll act.”