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Sharon Collinge spent 2 decades studying efforts to preserve vernal pools in central California.

Kika Tuff, Impact Media Lab

Massive U.S. ecological observatory gets new director

Landscape ecologist Sharon Collinge says she’s happiest in the field. But next week she’ll move indoors to lead the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) as it evolves from a beleaguered construction project into a unique user facility.

Collinge says she couldn’t be more excited by the prospect of “working in a leadership position with an organization that can have an impact on society.” That could be a tall order, however, given the troubled history of the $469 million project, which endured nearly a decade of false starts before construction began in 2012.

The longtime professor at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder will set up shop at NEON’s headquarters only a few blocks away from the CU campus. Although dozens of scientists work there, the real action will take place at 81 sites in 20 ecological domains scattered across the United States. All but six are already in operation, generating data from sensors and field collections that scientists hope will help them paint a picture of how features of land, water, and the atmosphere are changing over decades.

The project’s contractor, the Columbus-based Battelle, got the job in 2016 after the National Science Foundation (NSF) dropped a university-based consortium that had been created just for the project. In addition to major cost overruns and scheduling delays that drew congressional scrutiny, NEON has seen a revolving door of academics hired to provide scientific leadership to the Boulder staff and be the focal point for interfacing with the external research community. Each one arrived with high hopes, only to eventually leave in frustration.

More immediately, the 55-year-old Collinge fills a void created by the death last fall of Henry Gholz. Recently retired as a program manager in NSF’s division of environmental biology, Gholz had just begun working at NEON as a part-time visiting scientist for community engagement when he died in a rock climbing accident at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Collinge succeeds Eugene Kelly, a soil scientist from Colorado State University in Fort Collins who was visiting chief scientist when Battelle took over the project. Collinge acknowledges the project’s checkered history, including sharp disagreements within the community on whether NEON was the right approach to studying long-term ecological changes. But she expects the path ahead to be smoother.

“I’ve learned that this is a large and complex project with a diverse constituency,” says Collinge, who will hold the titles of chief scientist and NEON observatory director. “There was also the challenge of building this physical network. I think there is now greater stability and optimism, as well as a re-engagement of the ecological community around the vision and potential of NEON.”

Collinge faces several challenges as NEON moves from construction to operations. One is figuring out the size and alignment of scientific staff that will be needed to support the network. Many of them are early career scientists fresh out of school, and turnover has been high. But Collinge thinks that such mobility is not inevitable.

“I want to hear about their goals, and what they see as their roles,” she says. “I think some are very interested in being able to do their own research. I also see an opportunity for them to train outside scientists to submit proposals to work with the [NEON] products, especially during the next 5 to 10 years as people are looking at what questions to ask and how to access the data. I think NEON is a place where someone could spend their entire career as an ecologist.”

Another challenge is producing data that scientists find useful. “The long-standing promise of NEON is to provide high-quality, research-ready data to the ecological community,” noted a recent report to Battelle managers from NEON’s Science, Technology, & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). “It is critical that this aim be met and that the community values and has trust in all data products.”

Timeliness is one key element in meeting that promise, says Michael Dietze, an ecologist at Boston University and one of several scientists who have received NSF grants to make use of the data NEON has begun to generate. Dietze is interested in near-term ecological forecasts, and his project used NEON data in four areas—tick-borne diseases and mammal carriers, soil microbiome, aquatic productivity in algal blooms, and land surface and vegetation fluxes—to tweak its models.

“We’re trying to predict what we will see over days and weeks and seasons,” he says. The NEON data allow him to refine those forecasts in real time, and any delays in releasing the data interfere with that process. “The NEON cyberinfrastructure is new, and it continues to improve,” he says. “But I’m still a little nervous about the lag time between collection and posting. We want it in 2 weeks, not 2 months.”

Collinge says she’s not familiar with the protocols now in place to assure quality control, but agrees that it’s important to strike the right balance between speed and quality. “And if there are barriers, I need to find out what they are and how to overcome them.”

The most immediate challenge facing Collinge is repairing NEON’s frayed ties with leaders of the ecological science community. Under the previous management structure, which Battelle eliminated, NEON had dozens of institutional members who paid dues and met annually with senior NEON leaders. STEAC also existed, although it had become moribund after several members concluded the previous regime was ignoring its recommendations and shutting it out of the decision-making process. Battelle has reconstituted STEAC, and Collinge says she’s “looking forward to hearing their perspective … on the best strategies to complete construction, strengthen communications, and ensure that NEON provides high-quality data.”

Serita Frey, a microbial ecologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, is co-chair of the advisory committee and was one of three STEAC members on the search committee that chose Collinge. She says having a full-time chief scientist on board “is absolutely critical, not just for the staff but also for the community.” STEAC now meets twice a year and holds monthly conference calls, and Frey says Battelle officials “say they want to hear from us and have made a concerted effort to take the time to meet with us.”

CU has granted Collinge a 2-year leave so she can join NEON. She says she will begin working 1 day a week at NEON on 20 February and go full-time on 1 June. “At the end of the 2 years I’ll need to decide whether to resign from the university and become a Battelle employee or return to my position as a professor,” she explains.

As for NEON’s own timetable, Battelle had promised NSF that all sites would be operational by the end of 2017. Once it became clear that wouldn’t happen, NSF gave it a no-cost extension to complete construction by November 2018. Its contract to manage NEON was also extended for 3 years, through October 2020.

*Correction, 16 February, 5:25 p.m.: This story has been revised to reflect Henry Gholz's status during his tenure at NEON.​