The final site in the National Ecology Observatory Network, including a sensor-laden tower, was completed in Hawaii earlier this year.

Battelle/NEON

NSF’s huge ecological observatory is open for business. But tensions remain

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY—Twenty years in the making, with setbacks along the way, the $460 million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is now fully operational. At 81 sites across the United States, stretching from arctic tundra in Alaska to tropical forests in Puerto Rico, state-of-the-art sensors are collecting a wide range of environmental data designed to allow ecologists to detect large-scale patterns.

But as NEON moves into its operating phase, the project continues to be the subject of debate within the ecological science community. And those tensions were on display here earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), where both NEON’s problems and promise were discussed at several sessions.

Some ecologists worry NEON won’t have been worth the wait, and that the cost of operating the network will reduce the funding available for smaller-scale research projects. There has also been controversy surrounding how Battelle, the Columbus-based firm that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has hired to run NEON, has handled the project’s scientific advisers. But other researchers are looking forward to NEON’s growing data streams, saying they will allow ecology to enter a new era of big data and tackle new questions.

Here at the meeting, the conversations about NEON were colored by something of a generational divide. Some older ecologists expressed weariness over NEON’s travails. Younger researchers, however, expressed enthusiasm about the network’s potential uses.

One tweet, from Kyla Dahlin (@bristleweed), an ecogeographer at Michigan State University in East Lansing, captured the mood: “Good morning #ESA2019! Tired of hearing grumpy old men complain about @NEON_sci ? Come hear from actual NEON users @ 8 am in rm M108.”

A bumpy road

NEON, originally proposed more than 2 decades ago by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell, was designed to respond to a growing interest among ecologists in compiling large data sets that would allow them to look beyond their local study sites to see how their findings applied to a larger context. But, “The interest of the researchers far outpaced their access to the technology and the data,” says plant ecologist Laura Foster Huenneke, who recently retired from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Ultimately, NEON planners divided the United States into 20 so-called “ecodomains.” Each would get a suite of observatories that would collect data on plants, animals, weather, and other environmental parameters, using standardized methods so that scientists could compare data across sites. The idea is that “NEON will have the capability of answering continental scale questions,” Huenneke says. That could help ecologists better predict the effects of urbanization, climate change, or habitat fragmentation—processes changing landscapes all over the world.

But turning NEON into reality proved challenging. There were intense debates about its cost, where to place the observatories, and what kinds of data should be collected. Construction got bogged down; cost overruns caused the project to be downsized, and NSF fired the project’s original managers, who had been drawn primarily from the scientific community. In 2016, NSF awarded the NEON contract to Battelle, an engineering firm that has specialized in managing large government projects and facilities. Earlier this year, Battelle caused a stir when it fired two top NEON staff and, briefly, disbanded it’s scientific advisory board. Those moves “generated a lot of ill will” among ecologists, says Michael Dietze, an ecologist at Boston University.

Still, the firm won praise for finally finishing NEON’s construction, $9 million under budget, earlier this year. The final site, in Hawaii, went online in May.

Exhaustion and excitement

For some researchers who have lived through the NEON saga, it’s been exhausting. “There are people who experienced frustration during the many, many years it took to get to this point,” Huenneke says. And now, she says, “Many of those people like me have aged out of the conversation” about how NEON should be used.

Some younger scientists, however, are eager to tap into NEON. In a bid to harness that interest, Battelle has been hosting training workshops, including well-attended sessions at the ESA conference, that highlight the 179 “data products” that NEON is producing. The firm also recruited 17 early career scientists who are working with NEON data to share their experiences.

One of those researchers, Youssef Kaddoura, is getting his doctorate at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He is using NEON data to develop ways to better use airborne and satellite data for ecological studies and says the network has been a big help. “It’s not only the data, but also that I have a team behind me—the NEON people—who are my backstage support,” he says.

Dietze was just a graduate student when NEON was getting started. For his dissertation, he “ran around with a clipboard and measured things,” he recalls. Now an associate professor, he’s focused on ecological forecasting, which will work best with lots of data about lots of places. To him, NEON’s troubles are “water under the bridge,” and he’s become a member of NEON’s scientific advisory board. NEON “is delivering what it promised,” he says, and helping shift ecological studies toward being more of a network science, where it’s possible to see big, overarching patterns.

At the session of short talks by NEON users that Dahlin tweeted about, the enthusiasm was infectious. There, Dahlin described how she uses NEON data, collected in part by aircraft, to study how vegetation changes not only across a forest, but also vertically from the treetops to their bases. The eventual goal is to be able to predict how that vegetation—and the carbon it stores—will change through time. Such airborne data are very expensive to gather, she noted, but it costs her nothing to download and analyze them. “As a junior faculty, being able to tap in [NEON’s data] is terrific,” she says.

Her tweet, which she said was mostly made in fun, was motivated by her observation that criticism of NEON seems to come from older scientists. “The younger generation, even younger than me, are much more able to manage these data sets in a way that most senior ecologists were never trained in,” she says. Given that NEON is scheduled to operate for 30 years, she notes that younger researchers could devote their entire careers to analyzing NEON data.

Even so, some young scientists are more circumspect. “It’s a tremendous resource for ecology,” says Christopher Anderson at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who is using remote sensing data to map changes in biodiversity. He’s used NEON data in his work but says it can be difficult to use and interpret, and notes that many areas don’t have nearby observatories. Furthermore, he says, there’s “a certain amount of uncertainty” about NEON’s future.

Future uncertainties

One unknown is who will be running NEON in coming decades. Last month, some ecologists called on NSF to replace Battelle as NEON’s contractor when its current $65-million-a-year contract is up in 2021. The agency is now asking for input on a planned request for bids to run the network.

In the meantime, Battelle is still deciding who will become NEON’s scientific director, replacing Sharon Collinge, who resigned early this year in protest of how Battelle was treating its scientific staff. “We have a few very compelling candidates,” says Michael Kuhlman, Battelle’s chief scientist. Filling the position with an ecologist is not his highest priority, he notes. Having someone familiar with NEON’s mission is important, he says, but in addition, “We are looking for someone who appreciates and is comfortable with big data and data operations.”

NSF is of like mind. “Battelle is not being paid to do the science,” says NSF’s Roland Roberts in Alexandria, Virginia, who is NEON’s project manager. “It’s important for scientists to be involved,” he notes, but he stresses that effective management of the sites, the data, and NEON’s 500 employees is just as important. Roberts and Battelle say NEON now has 170 scientists and engineers on staff, 58 of them with ecological backgrounds, and about 225 field technicians who work part time.

Funding issues were also on the minds of many researchers who attended a meeting NSF organized at ESA to discuss NEON. Agency officials stressed that NSF is open to funding projects that use NEON data through a variety of NSF programs, not just those traditionally associated with ecology. “NEON is designed to provide data; it’s not designed to do research, so researchers would need to get funding from other parts of NSF,” Roberts said. When one audience member lamented the loss of a large-scale experiment in stream ecology that was originally planned to be a part of NEON but was scrapped because of cost overruns, NSF officials suggested researchers could seek funding to add it back through a relatively new funding mechanisms for projects costing up to about $70 million.

The officials also tried to assuage concerns that NEON operations would mean funding for collecting data from other field stations, and NSF’s long-running Long Term Ecological Research Network would fall to the wayside. “There’s frustration because NEON is isolated and operating as if other [long-term] networks don’t exist,” says Scott Collins, an ecologist from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who has served on NEON’s scientific advisory board and didn’t return after it was disbanded and reinstated. “NEON could learn and benefit from the work that already exists.”

But Kuhlman says now that NEON is up and running, the time is right to forge links between it and other efforts. “We are at the point now that we can have more productive collaborations,” he says. And Roberts, too, sees such collaborations as important: “I will beg for money,” he promised, to host workshops aimed at getting different parts of the community working together.

Such efforts could be key to getting scientists to trust NEON’s overseers and use the network, observers say. “If the research community doesn’t trust the management of the data, they are not going to use it,” Collins says. That’s Dietze’s worry as well. “If people don’t start using that data, there will be no reason to continue it,” Dietze says. And if NEON fails, he says, “that would be a tremendous loss, as I don’t think we get a redo.”