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Executive Summary Human technology, land use, and resource acquisition have accelerated the pace of regional and global environmental change to the extent that human actions are now a major force in the stability and functioning of most terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems. Those human-induced changes in our environment are expected to increase greatly over the coming decades, causing environmental issues to be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. The nation needs and deserves a scientific understanding of its natural and managed eco- . systems that is sufficient to assess how alternative human actions might impact the functioning of ecosystems and the services that they provide the nation and to identify science- based solutions to ecological problems. Achieving the necessary mechanistic understanding of the environment, developing predictive ability and identifying solutions would require fundamental advances in basic scientific knowledge that can only be derived from a regional- or continental-scale

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES program of experimental and observational research focused on the major environmental challenges that the nation faces. The study of direct effects and feedbacks between environmental change and biological processes is inherently interdisciplinary and national in scope. Existing large-scale research programs, such as the National Atmospheric Deposition Program/National Trends Network, Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiments, and Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, have focused mostly on the physical and geochemical aspects of environmental change. To complement those programs, research should focus on the fundamental biological processes that underlie climate change and biogeochemical cycles and other important human-driven environmental change, such as introduction of invasive species, emerging diseases, and the loss of biodiversity. Research should synthesize population and ecosystem processes across regions with different environmental characteristics that influence ecological commu- nities and across the continent. Biological research of such regional and continental scale has not been undertaken to any substantial extent, because of the inability of traditional smaD-scale ecological approaches to be scaled up to regional or continental scales. Indeed, neither the infrastructure required for such large-scale efforts nor the research efforts exist. The National Ecological Observatorv Network (NEON) proposed O J by the National Science Foundation (NSF) would be a network of infrastructure that would support continental-scale research on pressing environmental challenges. Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) funding was requested to build a network for a coordinated, nationwide multisite network for experimental and observa- tional environmental research. NEON would enable the study of common themes and the sharing of data and information across sites. It would facilitate a more integrated approach than merely linking existing research sites, such as the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites, by aDowing research on drivers of environmental changes to be pursued across the complete spectrum of ecosystems. It would be dedicated to producing the key results and fundamental scientific principles that are 2

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Executive Summary needed to project how human actions would likely affect natural and managed ecosystems across the nation in the coming decades. PROCESS AND PURPOSE OF THIS STUDY To evaluate the suitability of NEON to fulfill that role, NSF asked the National Research Council to convene an ad hoc committee 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 (see Box ESPY. The committee hosted a Web forum and a Web-casted workshop at which representatives of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, various relevant government agencies, and professional organizations spoke on NEON's potential. The broader scientific community was invited to post comments and views on the NEON Web forum. The committee also reviewed the reports of six NSF-supported workshops on NEON 3

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES (NSF 2000 a,b,c, 2002 a,b,c), an American Institute for Biological Sciences report on NEON, and a variety of documents on NEON prepared by NSF, including its 2004 budget request to Congress. Information from all those sources was the basis of the committee's deliberations, which resulted in the conclusions summarized below. CONCEPT AND POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION OF THE NATIONAL ECOLOGICAL OBSERVATORY NETWORK The committee felt that the vision of NEON, as developed by the scientific community in six workshops, was best articulated in two NSF statements: "collectively, the network of observatories will allow compre- hensive, continental-scale experiments on ecological systems and wiD represent a virtual laboratory for research to obtain a predictive under- standing of the environment" and "NEON wiD be focused around a very broadly based, general research question what is the pace and nature of biological change. Individual observatories would have a broadly defined observatory-specific theme that would be consistent with this overarching NEON question." The committee strongly endorses that vision as the central focus of NEON. In addition, the committee found strong support for NEON in other federal agencies, ecological scientific societies and organizations, and members of the scientific community. The committee did not address many of the minor differences and ambiguities that unavoidably arose when seven separate groups considered the diverse issues related to a potential NEON network If NEON is implemented to fulfill that vision, the committee believes that it would be pivotal in addressing regional and continental questions of great scientific and social importance. NEON would facilitate coordinated research efforts by providing nationwide facilities for environmental biology that transcend the budget of a single university or consortium. The central goal of NEON should be to perform com- . prehensive, regional- to continental-scale experimental and observational . .. .. . . . . . . . . . research on the natlon-s natural and managed ecosystems to obtain an 1n- 4

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Executive Summary depth understanding of the environment in order to assess vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems to environmental changes. The resulting knowledge would allow the identification of how various alternative societal actions and policies would affect species and ecosystems, and would suggest remedies and solutions to environmental problems. The major environmental challenges facing the nation that must be addressed by NEON result mostly from human actions that have regional, national, or global causes or effects. In the committee's view, the major ecological and environmental challenges that need to be addressed on a substantially expanded scale include the following: . a Biodiversity, species composition, and ecosystemf?~nctioning. Decreases in biodiversity and changes in species composition accompany most human uses of the biosphere. The loss of biodiversity can affect eco- system functioning and ecosystem services of value to society. The loss of biodiversity and shifts in ecosystem composition range from local to continental scales, and thus must be studied on their natural scale if their national implications are to be understood. . Ecological aspects of biogeochemical cycle. Humans are dominating natural processes as the major suppliers of the basic elements of life (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur). The redistribution of those chemical elements, and human-produced toxins, on regional and conti- nental scales may have profound effects on human health and on eco- system function and stoichiometry, which may result in shifts in bio- diversity, toxin accumulation, and concentration through the food chain. . Ecological implications of climate change. Human-induced climate warming and variability strongly affect individual species, community structure and ecosystem functioning. Changes in vegetation in turn affect climate through their role in partitioning radiation and precipita- tion at the land surface. Climate-driven biological impacts are often only discernable at a regional-continental scale. Regional changes In eco- . system processes affect global water and carbon cycles. Therefore, a national approach to understanding biological response to climate variability and change is required. 5

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES . Ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. Exposure to and the dynamics, spread and control of emerging diseases and their effects on humans, crops, livestock, and wildlife require a new level of understand- ing. The majority of emerging infectious diseases in humans either utilize vectors such as mosquitoes or ticks, or are zoonotic diseases that are transmitted from wildlife. That will require knowledge of spatial variations in exposure, of the population dynamics of disease reservoirs, of the effects of pathogens on individual behavior, of the molecular basis of host-parasite interactions, and of the interactions with other patho- gens and environmental threats. . Invasive species. Invasive species affect virtually every ecosystem in the United States, and can cause substantial economic and biological damage. The identification of potentially harmful invasive species, the early detection of new species as invasion begins, and the knowledge base needed to prevent their spread require a comprehensive monitoring and experimental network and a mechanistic understanding of the interplay of invader, ecosystem traits and other factors including climate and land use that determine invasiveness. . Land use and habitat alteration. Deforestation, suburbanization, road construction, agriculture, and other human land-use activities cause changes in ecosystems. Those changes modify water, energy and mate- rial balances and the ability of the biotic community to respond to and recover from stress and disturbance. Actions in one location, such as farming practices in the upper Midwest, can affect areas 1,000 or more miles away because areas are joined by water and nutrient flow in rivers and by atmospheric transport of agrochemicals. The committee listed the six issues in alphabetical order and did not attempt to prioritize them in any way. These ecological and environ- mental issues have been studied on a local scale, but results from those studies are confined by their spatial scale and cannot be extrapolated to address national concerns. The committee concluded that a comprehen- sive understanding of those environmental issues can only be achieved through regional to continental scale research using a national network of O O 6

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Executive Summary experimental and observational research infrastructure. Although the committee acknowledges that there are other ecological and environ- mental issues that can be addressed only on an expanded spatial scale, it suggests those six issues because of their immediate importance. Because the six issues presented above are interrelated at many levels, they present many opportunities for research integration and for sharing resources. The 20th century saw many threats to the environmental health of the nation, such as decreasing water availability and deteriorating water quality, spread of invasive species and emerging infectious diseases (for example, West Nile virus), and extinction of valued species, some of which are new and emerging while others have been persisting for a long time. Current responses to environmental problems are mostly attempts to reverse the adverse trends because we lack a comprehensive under- standing of the source of problems. Such an understanding can only be achieved though multiscale research that combines experimentation and observation replicated at numerous sites across the nation. A network of nationwide infrastructure, such as NEON, would enable local to regional to continental scale environmental research that would otherwise be impractical or impossible due to logistical constraints. Thus, studies at NEON would allow environmental scientists and biologists to be active in mitigating large-scale adverse impacts before they become severe threats to society. The scientific advances made possible by NEON would allow forecasting of the effects of alternative environmental policies and actions. Environmental forecasting is crucial for determin- ing the net costs and benefits of alternative policies and thereby helping society to choose policies that provide the greatest long-term net benefits. The committee strongly supports the creation of a NEON-like program and commends NSF's overall vision for NEON. However, it feels that the proposed implementation plans need modification and refinement to ensure that NEON would focus on the most important scientific issues, efficiently provide the national network of infrastructure essential for each challenge, encourage creative research, and meet the requirements of MREFC funding. First, in NSF's current plan, a NEON network would be built gradually via funding of one or two 7

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES regional observatories at a time. Thus, NEON would not be a truly national network of sites until ad the observatories are funded and built. which could take more than a decade. Second, the formulation and implementation of each regional observatory would be driven mostly by responses to requests for proposals. Institutions or consortia would submit proposals with their ideas of design and implementation to compete for a contract to build and operate a NEON observatory with a proposed budget of $20 million for construction and $3 minion for maintenance. That approach has the great advantage of encouraging creativity and investigator dedication, but it would decrease the ability of NEON to address major environmental challenges in a coordinated regional to national manner. Moreover, NSF's current approach does not provide the committee or Congress with a clear idea of what each NEON observatory would look like or do. Detailed design and imple- mentation plan is often required to obtain MREFC funding. To establish a coordinated, efficient, and truly nationwide network, the committee suggests that NSF structure NEON according to the environmental challenges to be addressed rather than by locating one site . in each ecosystem type represented in the United States. Thus, NEON would consist of a total of six "observatories" (rather than 17), one for each of the six environmental challenges. Each observatory would consist of multiple sites chosen simultaneously and located strategically across the nation to ensure adequate regional and national coverage for addressing the challenge. The funding needed to set up and maintain each of the six observatories would depend on its specific focus and plans, and the costs for an observatory might substantially exceed the $20 million for construction and $3 million for annual maintenance that NSF estimated for its original concept of a network of 17 regional observato- o ties. The total costs for six national rather than 17 regional observatories might, however, be comparable with or less than costs for the original concept, particularly because infrastructure for research on more than one of the six themes could be colocated at many sites. Most important, sufficient funds should be allocated to ensure that each observatory is a truly nationwide network. Specific research projects conducted at 8

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Executive Summary individual sites within a NEON observatory should be funded through other NSF research, rather than infrastructure, programs. Second, the committee believes that NEON observatories could contribute to and potentially unify relevant environmental data that are being gathered by other federal, state and local agencies. Moreover, particular NEON observatories could build on existing NSF research sites (LTER sites), the Department of Energy's programs (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiments and AmeriFlux eddy flux towers), and other projects. The committee supports NSF's effort to have NEON observatories form partnerships with other federal, state, and local agencies and suggests formulation of plans to address such issues as standardization of protocols and data and coordination of research. NEON programs would be ideal location for undergraduate and graduate interdisciplinary training and for K-12 students and teachers to study science on the basis of observation and experimental inquiry. The integration of research, education, and public outreach should be a central feature of NEON, and educational and outreach plans should be included from the inception of each observatory. FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS On the basis of its analyses, many of which were summarized above, the committee strongly endorses a NEON-like endeavor and the broad vision of NEON's mission that NSF articulated in the opening sentences of its 2004 congressional budget request. We offer the following find- ings and broad recommendations to help NEON to achieve its goals. Finding 1 The committee identified six critical environmental challenges that are regional, continental, or global in their extent biodiversity, species composition, and ecosystem functioning; ecological aspects of bio- geochemical cycles; ecological implications of climate change; ecology and evolution of infectious diseases; invasive species; and land use and 9

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES habitat alteration. Although ad six issues are of national concern, at present we do not have knowledge adequate to address them. Rapid and substantial advances in basic scientific knowledge would be needed for society to deal with those major environmental issues wisely. Recommendation 1 The committee strongly recommends that the nation and NSF give highest priority to research on the six environmental challenges the committee identified. Finding 2 An in-depth understanding of the causes and consequences of the six challenges is needed to allow assessment of potential ecosystem responses and to formulate effective environmental policy. Meeting this need would require large-scale experimentation, long-term observation, and scientific synthesis that could be carried out only using a network of nationwide infrastructure and research sites that are optimized for the purpose. Recommendation 2 The committee strongly endorses a NEON-like endeavor and the vision of the mission of NEON that NSF has articulated. As proposed by NSF, the central goal of NEON would be to perform comprehensive, regional- and continental-scale experimental and observational research on the nation's ecological systems to obtain an in-depth understanding of the environment. That knowledge could serve as a basis for developing predictive capability and would allow assessment of how alternative societal actions and policies wiD affect species and ecosystems and the services that they provide to society. 10

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Executive Summary Finding 3 NEON, as currently proposed, would be built piecemeal via funding of one or two regional observatories at a time, and each observatory would be managed by a different university or consortium. Such a design and implementation might hinder the integration and the national nature of the network of sites and make it less than optimally effective in facilitating coordinated regional- and continental-scale research. Recommendation 3 Each NEON observatory should be initiated as a nationwide net- work of facilities and infrastructure designed by a coalition of many multi-investigator, multi-disciplinary teams from across the nation to address optimally one of the six major environmental challenges. Each observatory should accommodate a combination of experimentation and observation and should comprise a collection of nationwide sites- whether terrestrial, freshwater, or marine that are most relevant to its central theme. Sufficient funds must be allocated for the development of each NEON observatory as a nationwide network. Because the six research themes identified by the committee have overlapping infrastruc- ture needs, construction of each new observatory could successively build on sites and infrastructure of existing observatories. Each later observa- tory could leverage investments made in the existing ones; this would increase the effectiveness and decrease the cost of the entire network. Finding 4 The committee agrees with the fundamental concept of NEON as stated by NSF and with many of the major recommendations derived from the six workshops. It believes that NEON would provide opportu- nities for large-scale environmental research and enable intellectual and scientific development that is impossible with existing infrastructure. However, the effective implementation of NEON and the maximization 1 1

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES of its contributions to science and the nation require a refined focus and a more detailed plan for its implementation. Recommendation 4 The creation of a NEON observatory addressing one of the six major environmental challenges would probably be a multistep process involving open workshops and working groups on that challenge, peer- reviewed preproposals submitted by different teams for work on that challenge at particular sites, and discussion and coordination among the chosen teams to synthesize the diverse ideas generated and create final plans for the entire observatory. The goals of the multistep process are to optimize the ability of various scientists to contribute creativity and personal commitment to the observatory and the ability of the multiple teams and sites to pursue their shared challenge in a coordinated manner. The result would be a clear vision of what the observatories are intended to look like and achieve, which would additionally provide a better fit within the purview of Major Research Equipment and Facilities Con- struction funding. The committee offers some specific suggestions: 1 00 NSF should encourage NEON observatories to form partner- ships with existing informatics centers (for example, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the National Biological Informa- tion Infrastructure and GenBank) or use them as models. . Each NEON observatory should form partnerships with appro- priate federal, state, and local agencies and organizations to coordinate and optimize data collection and sharing. Establishing memoranda of understanding could facilitate partnerships and collaboration. . The committee endorses NSF's proposal of a coordinating unit to oversee the implementation and operation of NEON. It recommends that a single scientific oversight committee, preferably formed by a neutral body such as a multiuniversity consortium, provide this oversight. 12

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Executive Summary Finding 5 The challenge of educating the next generation of scientists, teachers, 1 . 1 . 1 r ~ . . . ~ 1 ~ 1 . anu students anu or reaching out to the public about environmental science and issues cannot be met casually by individual researchers. Nothing short of an integrated, sequenced education and outreach plan that meets national standards, targets audience needs, and is based on measurable outcomes will answer the leadership and education vision set forth to NSF by the National Science Board. The NEON observatories are ideal venues for such an integrated, robust education and outreach plan. Recommendation 5 NEON's education programs should be targeted at undergraduate and graduate students and faculty, precollege students and teachers, and informal education, and citizen outreach. We recommend that multiple, systematic programs be integrated into the NEON proposal and devel- oped, sequenced, and planned beginning at each observatory's inception and with attendant funding mechanisms and budgets. If implemented in the general format outlined above, NEON could provide the fundamental scientific advances needed to understand how human-induced environmental change influences the long-term quality of life and wealth creation for the nation. Long-term outputs would include a science-based approach to environmental policy, risk analysis for environmental threats, evaluation of potential approaches to the threats, and a venue for increasing public awareness and understanding of environmental issues. 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. 13

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