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Rationale, Blueprint, and Expectations for the National Ecological Observatory Network

This white paper, Rationale, Blueprint, and Expectations for the National Ecological Observatory Network, was developed by the IBRCS Working Group. It was released at the National Press Club on March 25, 2003. Its aim is to advance the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) initiative by explaining the scientific rationale behind the need for NEON, how NEON will operate to meet that need, and the results that NEON is expected to produce. The IBRCS Working Group, which has diverse representation from the biological and scientific community, was aided in its preparation of the white paper by input from other scientists and organizations. As a result, this white paper represents the views of a broad segment of the scientific community.

Executive Summary:

NEON mission.

In the past century we learned an enormous amount about individual species and about ecological processes at the scale of watersheds and landscapes, but there is much we do not understand. In this century we must further our understanding of ecological processes and learn how local processes can be scaled up to biomes or continents if we are to accurately predict changes in the composition, structure, and dynamics of the nation's ecosystems and understand how those changes are likely to affect us. To develop that understanding, a new type of scientific infrastructure is needed--an infrastructure that enables the simultaneous collection of compatible data on fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes over broad geographical and temporal scales. NEON is a National Science Foundation (NSF) research platform that will apply experimental, observational, analytical, communication, and information technologies to investigate the structure, dynamics, and evolution of ecosystems in the United States, to measure the pace of biological change resulting from natural and human influences at local to continental scales, and to forecast the consequences of that change. The mission of NEON is to establish and sustain the scientific infrastructure and develop the intellectual capital needed to address critical questions about changes in ecological systems and to evaluate the impacts of those changes.

Scientific rationale.

Studies of the processes that affect our nation's ecosystems have been limited mostly to small geographic areas because they were conducted by small teams at single sites. While such studies have generated critical insights into ecological and evolutionary processes, many of the most challenging questions in the ecological, evolutionary, and biodiversity sciences require us to understand processes that operate over larger spatial and temporal scales and at all scales of biological organization, from molecules to biomes. Recent advances in analytical instrumentation, computer networking, information management, experimental methods, and computational analysis have set the stage for national, coordinated observations of our biological, physical, and chemical world. NEON will provide the infrastructure that allows scientists to investigate the suite of challenging and significant scientific problems requiring coordinated observations over large spatial and temporal scales. In addition to enabling groundbreaking research in the ecological, evolutionary, and biodiversity sciences, NEON will foster research in engineering and technology, information technology, and statistics and mathematics. From the ecological perspective, NEON will help us to understand the present composition and functioning of contemporary ecosystems, to elucidate how contemporary ecosystems have been shaped by historical natural and anthropogenic processes, and to forecast how contemporary ecosystems may respond to changes in key drivers.

NEON design.

NEON will be a common science facility open to all qualified users. Each regional observatory in the network will itself be a network of facilities, such as biological field stations; LTER sites; national parks; college or university campuses; marine laboratories; federal, state, and local agency field stations; or nature preserves. To ensure that NEON encompasses a broad range of ecosystem types, a minimum of 17 observatories is needed, 16 in the United States and 1 in Antarctica. Each observatory will include both a core site that is extensively instrumented and a number of satellite observatories that are less extensively instrumented. Highly specialized research infrastructure, including field-based sensor arrays, flux towers, stable isotope analyzers, microarray analyzers, and automated DNA sequencers, will be part of the NEON infrastructure.

The process of creating NEON involves building observatories sequentially through a process involving competitive peer review of observatory proposals, which allows the final structure of NEON to capitalize on the most creative ideas from a broad spectrum of the environmental science community.

A NEON Coordinating Organization (NCO) is envisioned to handle the national-level organization and administration. The NCO should be an open membership-based organization, broader than the institutions that operate and manage the regional observatories. A representative governing body with appropriate officers will formulate procedures, and a professional staff will see to administrative matters and work with the regional observatories to implement procedures.

A standard suite of instruments will be deployed and standardized measurements taken at NEON observatories to provide compatible data sets and analytical capability. These comprehensive measurements of (1) climate and hydrology, (2) biodiversity dynamics, (3) biogeochemistry, (4) biosphere-atmosphere coupling, and (5) spatial analysis and remote sensing, combined with manipulative experiments, provide the foundation for addressing questions about biodiversity and ecosystem function, carbon dynamics, invasive species, coupling of human and natural systems, ecology of infectious diseases, and biogeochemical imbalances.

Information technology (IT) is a key infrastructural component of NEON. It must bind together the core and satellite sites of an observatory with those of other observatories across the nation and integrate these distributed sites into a single, functional research tool. An important IT challenge lies in seamlessly integrating massive volumes of data into useful products. Such integration requires the adoption or, when necessary, development of standard protocols for data specification, data storage and dissemination, metadata specification, and data accessibility. Strong and continuous collaborations among individual observatories, the NCO, and other relevant experts and organizations will generate the cyber-infrastructure that overcomes this challenge. An important goal for NEON is to provide timely and broad access to all data; thus, NEON data policies will promulgate a cultural change that values data sharing.

In addition to observational data, and syntheses from these data, NEON activities will result in acquisition of objects within the physical, chemical, and biological domains. Curation of objects for current and future use requires a variety of appropriate repositories. In turn, efficient use of the collected objects requires comprehensive tracking and inventory information.

NEON will promote scientific cooperation and partnerships as a way to leverage resources, expertise, and information among research universities; federal, state, and tribal agencies; and for-profit and nonprofit organizations. NEON proposals for individual observatories and the NCO must clearly indicate that significant partnerships have been developed and that others will be sought.

Scientific results and products.

A well-executed NEON program will result in many difficult-to-anticipate advances in ecological science. One general advance from NEON will doubtless be the explosive development of regional ecology, involving integrated understanding of flows of material, energy, nutrients, biological entities, and information through regional landscapes and watersheds. In addition to such general theoretical advances, we can identify the specific types of data and other products that NEON will provide.

NEON will produce data on climate and hydrology, biodiversity and population assessment, biogeochemistry, and spatial analysis and remote sensing, in addition to the data generated by manipulative experiments. Other products include new instruments and technologies; ecological models; data processing, summarization, and communication technology; and specimens and samples.

Education and public outreach.

To be effective over its life span, NEON must engage and involve students, scientific and nonscientific groups, and the general public at all levels. NEON's dynamic and user-ready knowledge base, comprising real-time and continuous network data, will be a considerable asset for the teaching community and other public and private organizations. NEON will serve as a model of true integration of research and education.

Education and public outreach committees created by the NCO will guide the NEON education and public outreach missions and formulate strategic plans. Professional staff in the NCO education and public outreach offices will implement these strategic plans and coordinate programs with regional observatories. The education committee will explore all areas of formal and informal education, specifically focusing on the K-12 and undergraduate levels, but also including continuing education and special programs targeting underrepresented groups.

The public outreach office will coordinate closely with the education office and enact relevant recommendations from the public outreach committee. Public participation at NEON observatories will be fostered, and special efforts will be made to reach sectors of society traditionally underrepresented in science and environmental programs. The public outreach office will actively promote NEON resources and opportunities to the public, interface with print and broadcast media, publish newsletters, and disseminate press releases about items of popular, scientific, or agency interest.

Benefits and applications.

This synergy of new tools and approaches will benefit scientists by advancing the frontiers of knowledge and research capacity in ecology and will produce new perspectives in ecosystem science. NEON will provide critical infrastructure to support NSF research programs, such as Biocomplexity in the Environment. In addition, NEON will provide the platform for performing research in coupled human and natural systems research, coupled biological and physical systems, and people and technology, three priority areas designated by the NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education. The NEON program can also fill a significant gap in infrastructure for researchers from smaller institutions who want to conduct large-scale ecosystem research.

The NEON infrastructure will encourage collaboration between the research community, environmental monitoring programs, and the natural resource management community. Data emerging from NEON research sites will help inform decisions regarding management of the nation's natural resources. For example, the location and design of the NEON sites will help establish regional reference points for biological and ecological indicators of ecosystem function, something that will help state and federal agencies in setting goals for environmental management and protection. NEON observatories will also support extensive research on molecular phylogenetics and phylogeography, tools that federal and state agencies are increasingly using to establish conservation priorities.

NEON will benefit society by improving our understanding of the implications of ecosystem change for human welfare. Healthy ecosystems provide many goods and services that are essential underpinnings of our nation's economy. Ecosystem services include drought and flood control, pollination of crops, purification of air and water, pest and weed control, carbon storage, and decomposition of wastes, while goods include food, fiber, and pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, data from NEON can be used to predict the ecosystem responses to major meteorological and geological events such as hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. In addition to forecasting the ecological and environmental effects of extreme natural events, the NEON program will allow us to assess ecosystem response to human-induced stresses such as acid rain and global warming. NEON is a powerful research tool for discovering and identifying new introductions of non-native species, whose cost to the economy can total $137 billion annually, and investigating their ecological impacts.

Conclusion.

The forefront of ecological research is headed evermore toward a focus on questions and concepts that are relevant over large geographical regions, and this highlights the need for coordinated scientific infrastructure that is itself spread over large regions. Ongoing advances in our technical capability permit the development of networks of people and tools that can meet that need. NEON has been designed by the scientific community to capitalize on such capabilities and to enable discoveries about our nation's ecosystems that until now have been impossible to address. By fostering collaboration, the development of new tools and technologies, and the study of regional- and continental-scale questions, NEON will produce new perspectives in ecosystem science and thus public benefits, both anticipated and unforeseeable.

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