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Third Time a Charm for NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network?

AIBS Washington Watch, December 2003

Adrienne Froelich

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel recently completed its assessment of National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to develop a National Environmental Observatory Network (NEON). Although the committee delivered a glowing endorsement of the NEON concept, the report criticized NSF’s plan for constructing the project, leaving NEON’s chances of getting funded this year in question.

Earlier this year, NSF asked NAS to convene a panel to evaluate which major ecological and environmental issues and national concerns could be addressed only on a regional or continental scale, whether the current concept of NEON was optimal to address them, and what effects NEON would have on science and society. The NAS fast-tracked this report, with little more than 3 months between the committee’s first meeting and the public release of the final draft, which is available online at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10807.html.

The report was overwhelmingly favorable toward NEON. Committee chairman G. David Tilman notes, “Although we began with little knowledge of or personal participation in the earlier planning process for NEON, we grew to have a strong and unanimous support for the critical role that a NEON-like program could play both in the development of the discipline of ecology and in contributing to scientifically based environmental policy for the nation.” The committee expressed optimism about NEON’s role in moving the field forward, noting that NEON could “revolutionize the discipline of environmental biology by transforming ecology into a more mechanistic science that generates predictions and solutions that would help society to deal actively with major environmental issues.”

As for the question of whether NEON, as currently conceptualized, would be able to provide the infrastructure and logistical support needed to address ecological and environmental questions of national concern, the committee suggested a change in implementation. NSF had originally planned to fund a total of 16 regional observatories, two at a time, to address a suite of scientific questions. Those regional observatories would be linked to provide national coverage. Because of the length of time it would take to bring all observatories online and thus achieve a national network, the NAS committee recommended that NSF implement NEON one scientific issue at a time across the entire nation simultaneously.

The committee listed six research challenges as appropriate for NEON: biodiversity, species composition, and ecosystem functioning; ecological aspects of the biogeochemical cycle; ecological implications of climate change; ecology and evolution of infectious diseases; invasive species; and land use and habitat alteration. The committee agreed with NSF that “investigator-driven research must be a central feature of NEON,” but expressed concern about the current plan to allow principal investigators to propose research topics for the individual regional nodes. The NSF plan, they argue, could not easily ensure a coordinated approach to the challenges of building a national network, such as proper replication and coordination of experiments at all NEON sites.

On the surface, such a change may seem to necessitate a major overhaul of existing plans for NEON. However, those familiar with NEON say the NAS recommendations are not totally incompatible with existing plans but instead merely constitute “a change in sequencing.” Rather than bringing up fully functioning regional observatories two at a time, under the NAS model, NSF would fund infrastructure for one particular theme for all regions at the same time.

The NAS report arrives at a time when the House and Senate must iron out their differences on the appropriations bill that funds NSF. For the first time, the House of Representatives included funding for construction of two “prototype” NEON sites in its version of the NSF funding bill for
fiscal year 2004. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee did not fund NEON, citing a lack of money and unwillingness to initiate new major research projects.

Many in the scientific community are concerned that the recommendation to reconfigure NEON may give policymakers the impression that NEON is not quite off the drawing board, thus jeopardizing the project’s chances for funding this year. NEON was requested through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account, which is reserved for big-dollar projects that typically already have a blueprint and detailed plans for implementation by the time NSF requests them in the budget. Congressional sources say the report will definitely strengthen NEON’s chances for funding in the long term, but no one will know how it affects NEON’s chances for fiscal year 2004 until the House and Senate reconcile differences between the two funding bills. Congress has twice before declined to fund NEON; advocates remain optimistic that NAS support of the project will help ensure that the third time is a charm.

Adrienne Froelich (e-mail: afroelich@aibs.org) is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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