NEON ecological laboratory at risk, fired advisers warn NSF after shake-up

Science | AAAS | 1/15/2019 | Staff
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The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a half-billion-dollar facility funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), hopes to revolutionize ecology by collecting an unprecedented amount of data about long-term environmental changes across North America. But as NEON prepares to begin full operations, an abrupt leadership shake-up threatens to alienate the scientists who will be using those data and, thus, are essential to its success.

On 8 January, Sharon Collinge, NEON’s chief scientist and principal investigator, resigned 4 days after Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages the network, fired two senior managers without her knowledge or consent. Within hours of Collinge’s resignation, Battelle dissolved NEON’s 20-member technical advisory committee, heading off a possible mass resignation of panel members opposed to Battelle’s actions. The rapid-fire developments came after years of cost overruns, construction delays, and debate over the project’s scientific merits and left many researchers bewildered and concerned.

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Upheaval - NEON - Wound - First - Then–NSF

The upheaval is NEON’s latest self-inflicted wound. First proposed by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell in 2000, the project has chewed up half a dozen scientific directors—Collinge lasted less than a year—ensnared two contractors, prompted a congressional inquiry over spending and management practices, and generated a seemingly endless stream of critical reviews by outside experts. Many ecologists also worry that NEON’s $65-million-a-year operating budget will reduce the NSF funding available for ecological research that doesn’t rely on data from the 81-site facility, which is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.

Battelle took over NEON in 2016, after NSF fired the project’s original contractor, and the Columbus-based nonprofit is widely credited with putting the project on the right track. By the end of 2018 it had completed work on all but one of NEON’s data-collecting sites, for $10 million less than the latest projected cost of $469 million....
(Excerpt) Read more at: Science | AAAS
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