NSF BIO Advisory Subcommittee Recommends Separate, Independent Entity for NEON User Engagement

A subcommittee tasked with understanding National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) user engagement recommended the formation of a separate entity for community user engagement. This entity would interact directly with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to accomplish NEON’s mission and would be independent of the NEON contractor Battelle Memorial Institute. The NSF-funded half-billion-dollar ecological observatory’s construction is now completed and it is the first continental-scale platform for ecological research.

Directorate for Biological Sciences Advisory Committee (BIO AC) member and University of Minnesota plant ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares provided an update on the subcommittee’s findings during a May 24 meeting held at NSF in Alexandria, Virginia. The subcommittee’s full report is not yet available to the public.

The subcommittee concludes that the independent entity should maximize users’ sense of excitement about NEON, and facilitate and enhance dialogue between NEON and the ecological community, thereby building end-user trust. It should have convening power, be representative of the research community, be led by the scientists and provide a unified voice for the community. It should also empower the scientific community and serve as a scientific incubator to co-generate ideas. Another important function of the entity will be to regularly evaluate NEON by surveying users on the program’s strengths and weakness and broadly distributing the results of these evaluations. The entity could also provide large-scale peer reviews of NEON’s scientific protocols, such as the ones used by the IPCC and IPBES. According to the subcommittee, potential vehicles for community engagement and communication may include events at major conferences, workshops and unconferences and an online platform.

The subcommittee members explored models from similar entities across the scientific community, including LIGO, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and the Long-Term Ecological Research Network. It also considered current avenues used by the scientific community to provide input to NEON, Battelle and NSF, including the Science, Technology and Education Advisory Committee (STEAC) that reports to Battelle, and the technical working groups. The subcommittee found that another entity is needed to fully engage the scientific community.

The BIO AC voted to accept the report from the subcommittee ‘as is’ without any modifications. Cavender-Bares read a statement from ESA that largely echoed the subcommittee’s recommendations.

NSF Director France Cordova joined the meeting and said that she has read the subcommittee’s report and will use it as NSF staff discusses the best management structure for NEON. Cordova broke down NEON management needs into three categories, emphasizing the different skill-sets need for each category: 1) Operations: keeping instruments in working order 2) Science: ensuring that data is usable and 3) Outreach: engaging the user community through outreach and ensuring that data is used by the scientific community and provides value to the country.

Battelle’s current contract to operate NEON expires in October 2020. It is the default position of NSF that operations awards for all facilities are competed openly. The NSF fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget submission to Congress says that an additional 12 months of funding to Battelle is authorized but will only be awarded at the NSF Director’s discretion in FY2021. In a follow-up message to ESA, NSF said that there are no specific plans to issue a solicitation for NEON management that NSF can share at this point.

NEON completed construction and became fully operational in early 2019. Battelle briefly disbanded – and then reinstated – the STEAC in January 2019. Concurrently, NEON Chief Scientist Sharon Collinge resigned after Battelle fired two senior staff members without her knowledge. Battelle’s Chief Scientist Michael Kuhlman said that the decision to disband the STEAC was based on his “erroneous assumption that such advisory bodies were routinely reconstituted at the change of leadership of NSF large facilities.” Battelle took over NEON construction in 2016 after NSF fired former contractor NEON, Inc over mismanagement issues. In 2016, NSF changed NEON’s management from NEON, Inc. to Battelle.

Nine of the 20-members of the STEAC resigned May 22 citing its lack of independence and its inability to communicate directly to NSF. Cavender-Bares read critical statements about Battelle and user engagement from two STEAC members who recently resigned. Letters from these STEAC members are posted online.

Header image by Caleb Slemmons (CC BY-NC 2.0)