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A NEON scientist outfits a tower in Virginia in 2015.

Trevor Frost

NEON ecological observatory in crisis again: Top scientist quits, Battelle fires advisory board and senior managers

A half-billion-dollar ecological observatory being built by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is once again in turmoil, just as it moves from construction to operations.

Sharon Collinge, chief scientist and principal investigator for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), resigned yesterday after the project’s contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, fired two senior managers without her knowledge or consent. Within hours, Battelle had dissolved the 20-member committee of outside scientists advising the project, heading off what some advisory committee members say might have been a mass resignation in support of Collinge.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, NEON is nearing completion as an 81-site facility designed to lead ecology into the era of big data. But it has had a troubled history. It was proposed nearly 20 years ago by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell, and many ecologists have long questioned its value. Construction finally began in 2012, but in 2015, NSF removed the contractor after ongoing management problems put the project well behind schedule and significantly overbudget.

Battelle won the contract in 2016 and is widely credited with righting the ship. By the end of 2018 it had completed work on all but one of the sites. The project is now projected to come in $10 million below the revised, higher construction budget of $469 million.

In late November 2018, NSF staff painted a rosy picture of NEON in a presentation to its oversight body, the National Science Board. “We are within inches of the finish line for construction,” said Joanne Tornow, acting head of the biology directorate that is managing the project. “But we are not resting on our laurels as we transition into operations,” she added.

“I feel we are in a very happy place,” chimed in outgoing board member Inez Fung, who had led an ad hoc panel created to keep close tabs on NEON. “And I am looking forward to very great discoveries.”

That may still happen. But last week’s events have put at least a temporary damper on such sentiments. On 4 January, executives from the Columbus-based nonprofit arrived at NEON headquarters to deliver some very somber news. Richard Leonard, who had overseen the turnaround from Battelle’s corporate office, was being let go, along with ecologist Wendy Gram, a senior manager who was seen as the heart and soul of the scientific staff. Within minutes they had been escorted out of the building.

A third senior manager in Boulder had submitted his resignation a few weeks earlier. Rick Farnsworth, who had managed the construction project, left NEON to become assistant director for program management at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, an NSF-supported facility in West Virginia with headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The changes reflect the new phase that NEON is entering, says Patrick Jarvis, Battelle’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “Since we are shifting our focus, we decided to streamline our management structure to use our funds most efficiently,” he says.

I have not been granted the authority to be successful.

Sharon Collinge, formerly of the National Ecological Observatory Network

Collinge, who had arrived at NEON in February 2018 from the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she is a tenured professor of environmental studies, says she was unaware of the pending personnel actions. It was the latest in a series of developments that she felt undermined her ability to lead the observatory, however, and turned out to be the final straw.

“I have not been granted the authority to be successful,” she wrote in an 8 January letter to Battelle officials announcing her decision to return to the university. She says Battelle had promised her that she would have the power to “allocate resources, both human and financial,” as she carried out her duties as observatory director and chief scientist. The 4 January personnel actions were a clear breach of that agreement, she says.

The role of the scientific director has been a festering sore since NEON’s earliest days. A half-dozen senior scientists had come and gone as the project struggled to strike the right balance between its scientific and construction components.

NEON’s Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC) had flagged the need to clarify the leadership role in several of its semiannual reports to Battelle. In September 2018, it warned that “a clear chain of command for scientific, financial, and personnel decisions needs to be specified and made transparent.” It also proposed a solution: “Decision-making must be driven by science, and the observatory director must be empowered to lead that decision-making effort.”

Battelle takes a different view. In its 29 October 2018 response to STEAC’s latest report, it thanked the panel for its input but said its corporate policy does not allow such delegation of authority to someone who was not an employee. “We note that, because it is inconsistent with good governance, Battelle … do[es] not authorize subcontractors to discharge personnel decision, nor obligate Battelle financially,” it wrote.

Collinge says she was offered the chance to join Battelle during negotiations for the position but instead opted for an arrangement similar to an NSF “rotator” in which academics go on leave for a few years to join NSF. The mechanism allows professors to retain their academic standing.

Her original 2-year agreement with Battelle called for a review of her status in February 2020. Instead, Collinge is leaving NEON tomorrow and expects to return to the Boulder campus on 1 February.

Eugene Kelly, a soil scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, is returning for a second stint as its top scientist on an interim basis. Kelly was interim CEO during the project’s transition to its new contractor, and Battelle’s chief scientist, Mike Kuhlman, says Kelly’s “depth of familiarity with this remarkable and complex project” makes him ideal to serve as acting chief scientist while a national search is launched for a permanent observatory director.

Battelle’s decision to dissolve STEAC “came as a complete surprise” to the panel, says Travis Huxman, its co-chair. A plant physiologist at the University of California, Irvine, Huxman says he thought Battelle and NEON were “moving to a place where Sharon would be in charge” and that the events of the past week have been “a shock to all of us.” He says he’s “deeply discouraged” by Collinge’s resignation, adding, “my heart goes out to the staff, who are confronted with the loss of a strong leader.”

In an email yesterday to STEAC members, Kuhlman described the panel’s dismissal as a natural progression for a project moving from construction to operations. “Given the maturation of the NEON project, it is appropriate to re-examine the charter of our external advisory group,” Kuhlman wrote. “Battelle … will develop a new charter and constitute a new advisory group in the very near future that will now align to the new priorities which come with full operation of the network and the changing needs of the research community.”

Huxman disputes the assumption that the current committee wasn’t suited to plotting NEON’s future. “We had recently turned over several new members and had strengthened our capacity to serve NEON as it moved forward,” he says.

But despite Battelle’s decision, Huxman hasn’t soured on NEON’s potential. “My goal,” he says, “is still to help NEON be successful.”