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A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

NSF/Neon Inc.

Completing troubled ecological observatory will cost $35 million more

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has agreed to spend $35.5 million more to complete its National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). That brings the total cost of the troubled project, already reduced in scope and delayed by a year, to $469 million.

NSF officials say the additional construction money won’t squeeze out existing research programs in biology. Instead, the agency will tap funds earmarked for maintenance and operations but not spent because the project is behind schedule.

Even so, NSF may still face a serious cost crunch down the road. The project’s new contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, has promised that all 81 sites in the continental-wide network will be uploading data for scientists to use by December 2017. And that’s when NSF will need to have a better grasp of what it will take to operate the observatory, says Maria Zuber, chair of NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, which this week signed off on the additional spending.

 “We just want this thing finished so it can start doing science,” says Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “The board is fully supportive of NEON and we wanted to give it every chance to succeed. But Battelle has focused on construction. We don’t have the same confidence in what it will cost to operate.”

NEON was conceived in 2000 by former NSF Director Rita Colwell as a novel way to collect massive amounts of data from 20 distinct ecological domains that span a range of terrestrial and aquatic systems. The approach generated heated debate within the ecological community, and scientists spent several years hashing out the details and assembling an organization, NEON Inc., to manage the project from Boulder, Colorado. By the time construction began in 2012, however, NEON Inc. had already endured several changes in leadership and was struggling to obtain the land-use and environmental permits needed for the more than 100 sites on which instruments would be deployed for as long as 30 years.

A series of recent reports by NSF’s internal watchdog highlighting spending irregularities by NEON Inc. drew congressional scrutiny and generated pressure on NSF to take action. Already under the gun because of an anticipated $80 million budget overrun and scheduling delays, NSF decided last summer to descope the project, dropping a long-term stream experiment and seven urban sites. In December 2015 it removed NEON Inc., and in March the agency picked the Columbus-based Battelle to manage the project.

The project’s new CEO, Rich Leonard, says that about half the additional $35.5 million results from NSF’s estimate of what will be needed to obtain the required permits on a handful of environmentally sensitive sites in Hawaii and California. Most of the rest will be used to catch up, he adds, after the transition to a new contractor slowed progress on several fronts.

Leonard points to several small victories since Battelle came on board. NEON is close to winning permission to begin installing towers, experimental facilities, and support buildings on a forest and grassland site on the big island of Hawaii, he says. His team has also found a way to afford NEON’s original plans to operate a three-plane fleet that would provide annual aerial coverage of every site. And he promises to unveil a revamped scientific advisory panel at the August annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, a move he hopes will take a big step toward repairing frayed ties with the scientific community.

Anne Maglia, who oversees the project within NSF’s biological infrastructure division, says Battelle has earned high marks for its accurate cost estimates, the pace at which it has gotten up to speed, and overall business practices. She also points to recent community workshops to help map out how NEON would do science once construction is completed.

NEON’s scientific leadership is still in flux. Eugene Kelly, a soil scientist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, is currently halfway through his 2-year stint as the project’s chief scientist. Battelle is weighing the best way to move forward, says Leonard, including whether to make Kelly’s “visiting” slot a full-time and permanent position.

Zuber says the board faced an easy choice this week between pulling the plug or providing additional funding. “The close-down costs are similar to what completion will cost,” she says. (NSF says it will take $113 million to finish building NEON and $80 million to terminate the project.) “And we all believe in the value of the science NEON will do.” But it’s the long-term operating costs that pose the next big challenge for NSF, she notes. NSF needs to sharpen its current estimate of between $60 million and $80 million a year, she says, before the board can make any decisions about whether operating NEON is damaging other programs in the biology directorate.

“If operating costs become an issue, then we may be talking about another descoping,” she says. “But let’s get it built, and then we can look closely at managing the impact of NEON on the rest of the bio budget.”