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Rich Leonard (right) learns about how field technicians Lauren Egli and Matt Bitters identify beetle specimens from the Sterling, Colorado, field site.


NEON’s new CEO promises to ‘build a bridge’ to ecologists

Richard Leonard is a corporate turnaround artist. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, is betting on him to turn around its troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

Leonard is the new CEO of NEON, a $433 million facility being built at dozens of sites around the United States. He’s spent his career with the Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus-based nonprofit organization that was selected this spring to finish construction and operate the observatory after NSF fired the original contractor.

The 52-year-old chemical engineer has never worked on an NSF-funded project, and has no ties to the ecological community that will use NEON over the next 3 decades to collect and analyze vast amounts of data on climate change, land use, and biodiversity from 20 distinct biomes. But he has managed numerous defense-related programs for Battelle, which operates six national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Until last February, Leonard was CEO of Bluefin Robotics, a former university startup that makes autonomous underwater vehicles for the military; Battelle acquired the firm in 2005. Over 16 months he restructured the struggling company and engineered its sale to General Dynamics. That success put him in line to lead a Battelle NEON team that bested the Mitre Corporation and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages the NSF-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, for the chance to rescue the one-of-a-kind facility.

Last summer, faced with a projected $80 million cost overrun and a year’s delay in the scheduled 2016 completion, NSF decided to shrink the number of NEON sites from more than 100 to 81 and reduce the scope of the project. That was the final straw in a series of missteps that sealed the fate of the previous contractor, NEON Inc., which was created for the purpose of building and running the observatories.

NSF has given Battelle until mid-June to submit a detailed plan for managing NEON, but Leonard says there won’t be any major surprises. “I do not expect to see any descoping beyond what has already been announced,” Leonard says, “and we’re looking for completion by the end of 2017.”

Restructuring begins

In the meantime, Leonard has begun to restructure the internal organization—some 300 people based in Boulder and another 150 to 200 in the field—and repair NEON’s tattered relationship with the ecological community. The latter has been a running sore for the project, leading to a revolving door of top scientists and the near-resignation of its top advisory panel. “We’ve heard loud and clear from scientists,” he says. “We’ve got a bridge to build there.”

Eugene Kelly, a soil scientist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, will serve as the point person for community outreach. “Rich has asked me to re-engage the scientific community,” says Kelly, who joined NEON as visiting chief scientist last August and then served several months as interim CEO until Battelle won the contract. “We want them to help us set our priorities going forward, and I’m very comfortable in that role.”

Leonard also has enlisted microbiologist Rita Colwell, who as NSF director first proposed NEON in 2000, to help revive a moribund Science, Technology and Education Advisory Committee. “We haven’t yet identified the membership,” Leonard says, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a mix of old and new members.” The committee’s most recent chair was Todd Dawson, an integrative biologist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

To make sure the project stays on schedule and budget, Leonard has brought on a senior program manager at Battelle, Rick Farnsworth. NEON leases the land it needs to erect a tower, collecting stations, and support facilities on each site. But gaining the permission of the landowner—be it a private entity, a foundation, or the federal government—can be slow, complex, and frustrating. It remains one of NEON’s biggest challenges, Leonard says.

Farnsworth is a retired colonel/brigade commander in the U.S. Army Reserve who also holds a Ph.D. in biology from UC Santa Cruz. And his unassuming job title, program manager, belies his authority over all NEON operations.

Farnsworth is the principal investigator on the NSF award, Leonard says, and thus responsible for what he calls the “on-time delivery of the facility.” His position combines the dual roles of project manager and project scientist. The current project manager, Javier Marti, is transitioning out of NEON and will help out on the business side, Leonard says, adding that he expects a series of visiting head scientists will do stints in Boulder as NEON evolves from a construction project to an operating observatory network.

Battelle has created a new entity, Battelle Ecology Inc., to inherit the agreements that NEON Inc. struck with property owners. Leonard says Battelle’s top leadership and corporate board of directors will provide “a higher level of accountability,” replacing a NEON Inc. board comprised of scientists and member institutions. Last week an independent consultant told NSF’s policy-setting body, the National Science Board, that NEON Inc. “was like a high school team” trying to play in the major leagues.

But Leonard says a more apt metaphor may be managing a startup company like Bluefin Robotics. “Part of the challenge is engaging with a broad enough audience to understand where the risks might be,” he says. “For NEON, the scale is the key. It’s the unknowns that will get you. And if you don’t have a sufficient reserve, or if you’re too aggressive in pursuing your goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”