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C H A P T E R F I V E A Synthesis of Early Concepts of the National Ecological Observatory Network and a New Vision The committee strongly endorses NEONand suggests some refinement of its implementation plan to ensure that it wo?~ldirovide the necessary . ~nfrastr?~ct?~re e~icientlyfor elective large-scale environmental research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored six work- shops to outline detailed features of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) (NSF 2000 a,b,c, 2002 a,b,c). The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AlBS) then prepared an overview report (AlBS 2003~. In addition, as noted earlier in this report, NSF included a summary of its vision of NEON in its F'Y2003-2004 budget request () and published a detailed overview (NSF 20021~. The committee used those documents and comments from various NSF officials, other speakers at its public meeting, and participants in its Web forum to build a picture of potential NEON designs, how they might be implemented, and how NEON might address key challenges in ecological and environmental science on a regional to continental scale. In doing so, the committee focuses on what it feels are the major issues facing NEON. In this chapter, we do not discuss many of the minor inconsisten- cies that unavoidably occurred when six groups of scientists- 77

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES each group chosen to represent a different part of the discipline offered their views of NEON. Moreover, unlike the AlBS report, which was commissioned to synthesize the six workshops, our report is to evaluate the conceptual foundations of a NEON-like network and to determine whether NEON as currently conceived would provide the infrastructure and logistical support needed to address ecological and environmental questions of national concern. To evaluate a program as large and complex as NEON, the committee assessed the ideas proposed in the workshops and the synthesis of those ideas put forward by NSF (NSF 20023) and AlBS (AlBS 2003) and compared them with alternative approaches to the implementation of NEON. We address that task in this chapter. Many excellent recommendations were presented in the six work- shops, but a single unified concept of NEON did not emerge, largely because not ad statements and visions of NEON's potential structure are compatible. That is probably a result of the organization of the work- shops, which each brought together one branch of the scientific commu- nity to formulate individual viewpoints on the NEON concept. As stated in Chapter 3, the differences and conflicts between ideas described in the workshops make the evaluation of the third question in the committee's charge difficult to answer: 'avoid NEON, as conceptualized in the series of six community workshops, be able to provide infra- structure and logistical support to address the ecological and environ- mental questions of national concern?" We document here some of the major differences among the publications about NEON and provide an evaluation of the concept of NEON that is relevant to the third question in our charge. An example of differing or conflicting ideas about NEON is the different published descriptions of the overall mission of NEON. The AIBS report (AIBS 2003), the NSF F'Y2003-2004 budget request (), and the 2002 NSF summary of NEON (NSF 20021) ad paint NEON with slightly different colors. They all describe important parts of the NEON vision, but they also reflect the different foci of the different types of scientists at the 78

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A Synthesis of Early Concepts of the National Ecological Observatory Network and a New Vision workshops. Thus, it is not surprising that the reports do not speak with . . a single voice. NSF's synthesis of those documents states that "collectively, the network of observatories will allow comprehensive, continental-scale experiments on ecological systems and will represent a virtual laboratory for research to obtain a predictive understanding of the environment." Such observatories, at which coordinated data collection and ecological experiments could be conducted, was universally lauded by the federal agencies and scientific societies represented at the public workshop and Web forum (see Appendix C). In March 1997, the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources of the National Science and Technology Council proposed a framework for "Integrating the Nation's Environmental Monitoring and Research Networks and Programs." Its report made a strong case: A fundamental improvement in the way that the United States monitor its environment is required if we are to meet the chal- lenges facing us during the next several decades. Current monitoring programs do not provide integrated data across multiple natural resources at the various temporal and spatial scales needed to develop policies based on current scientific understanding of ecosystem processes. ... tIn fiscal year 1995, ... about $650 miDion] was focused on activities in about 30 major Federal environmental monitoring and research networks and programs. Although the associated programs, activities, and networks were established in response to specific legislation about specific resources and issues, they can be better integrated to provide information needed for effective ecosystem manage- ment. Similarly, the networks can be better integrated to provide information synthesis across a range of spatial scales. Later report by the Heinz Center (Heinz Center 2002) titled The State of the Nation's Ecosystems indicated that relevant datasets were still not integrated and that many data gaps existed: In seeking data, we found a classic case of a glass that is both half empty and half full. In applying the selection criteria outlined 79

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES above, we found adequate data for more than half of the selected indicators, with trends or other context information on many of these, allowing us to report meaningfully on many aspects of ecosystem condition. However, substantial gaps remain, and until and unless these gaps are fined, Americans wiD not have access to a complete picture of the "state of the nations' eco- systems.' NSF's general concept of NEON would to some extent address those monitoring issues, but NSF's vision focuses NEON more strongly on helping ecology to become a predictive science. We acknowledge that more-thorough and well-coordinated national environmental monitoring is needed, but we conclude that the resources available to NSF would be unable to fill the many identified gaps in national environmental moni- toring (Heinz Center 2002) and that monitoring itself is less compatible with the mission of NSF, which is to advance mechanistic understanding and predictive ability in environmental science. Thus, we strongly support NSF's vision that NEON's central role should be to facilitate experimentation and observation for the advancement of environmental science. Although the committee was not charged to provide a complete design and implementation plan for NEON. we offer here a few su~es- tions designed to help NEON to achieve the potential articulated in NSF's vision. The suggestions contain elements that flow from the work of all six workshops. For instance, the overall structure of NEON as a set of spatially distributed sensor arrays and experimental sites emerges from aD the workshop reports. However, we also evaluate potential alternatives for the structure and development of NEON in our assess- ment of whether NEON could provide the infrastructure and logistical support needed to address environmental challenges. Major differences are highlighted below, and they are discussed briefly in the context of each workshop report. 1. Physical structure of a NEON observatory: Each NEON observatory was envisioned as a core and associated satellite sites in a 80

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A Synthesis of Early Concepts of the National Ecological Observatory Network and a New Vision given region (blame type) of the nation. Such observatories were to be linked to form a single NEON network that spanned the continent. Suggested alternative: Each observatory should focus on a major . . , , ,, . , , ,~ . environmental cnanenge instead ot a single blame and have multiple sites providing a continentwide scope. The sites that constitute a NEON observatory should be selected simultaneously so that they can address optimally the major environmental challenges that the nation faces. 2. Observatory number and placement: Many documents on NEON (NSF 2002d, AlBS 2003) discussed the possibility of having 16 regional observatories in North America based on a Forest Service designation of 16 blames in the coterminous United States. Establishing observatories based on terrestrial ecoregions fails to acknowledge that freshwater and marine ecoregions are also of national importance. Furthermore, ecoregions vary greatly in size, and some may have little relevance to some environmental challenges. Suggested alternative: Each observatory should focus on a central research theme and contain sites whether terrestrial, freshwater, or marine that are most relevant to that theme. We suggest a few criteria for site selection of a theme-driven observatory. Geographic distribution and coverage. Integration of existing facilities. Flexibility to accommodate other research themes and to be expanded to meet future demands. 3. Growth ofthe network: NSF envisioned that NEON could grow from two regional observatories until it met its purpose of providing integrated data on the state and function of ecosystems in the United States. However, the planning documents provide little information for how NEON should grow, except that the network would grow via selection of the best sites through a competitive review similar to that used for selection of the current Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites. However, the differences in goals between NEON and 81

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES the LTER sites suggest that site selection for NEON should grow in a different way especially because NEON sites need to function in an integrated network and LTER sites are meant to function independently. Initiating the NEON network with two sites in different biomes, as planned by NSF, cannot immediately fill the national need for integrated ecological data. Suggested alternative: The network should be designed in such a way that even the first elements are built to fulfill the national network- ing role. Each observatory would focus on a key environmental challenge and would be built with continentwide canacitv to allow understanding 1 J of key environmental issues on a scale appropriate to national-level problems. The network could be initiated as one theme-driven observa- tory with sites across the nation. Growth of the network would occur as each new theme-oriented national observatory was built and set up to focus on additional issues. New observatories would use some of the facilities of former ones but probably would require serial investment in . infrastructure. 4. Funding: Funding to establish each individual observatory was estimated at $20 million for construction plus about $3 million in operation and maintenance costs. Budget development focused on the individual observatory and did not address the funding requirements for network-level administrative support and equipment, such as bio- informatics synthesis centers or centers of taxonomic expertise. Individual NEON projects were to be funded through NSF's competitive proposal program, but it was not clear how core data collection and analysis would be funded. Suggested alternative: Funds for observatory infrastructure- facilities, equipment, data and sample repositories should come from Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MRFEC) account, and the amount of funds should reflect the demands of the overall mission of the NEON observatory, not a planned funding formula. Depending on the theme of the observatory, construction and mainte- nance costs could exceed $20 and $3 million, respectively. Insufficient 82

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A Synthesis of Early Concepts of the National Ecological Observatory Network and a New Vision funding for construction and equipment acquisition could hinder NEON's ability to achieve its goal of providing nationwide infrastructure to address continental-scale questions. In addition, operational funds and funds for individual research projects to be implemented within each observatory should be made available by NSF. Research funds could be made available through relevant existing programs or through a new program designed for large-scare interdisciplinary research. 5. Informatics and synthesis: An informatics infrastructure was seen to be critical to NEON's success, but no firm plans for the integra- tion of different data streams or analyses have been articulated. The informatics and synthesis center would ensure efficient data-sharing and data-archiving. Furthermore, information collected from NEON observatories could be disseminated for education purposes via the bioinformatics and synthesis center. Suggested alternative: Informatics and synthesis center is a pivotal part of the basic NEON plan. Bioinformatics tools and experts would be needed to develop new mathematical algorithms to decipher and inter- pret large data streams. NEON should explore the latest applications of data assimilation technologies (for example, four dimensional data assimilation). Its bioinformatics center could either partner with or be modeled after existing bioinformatics centers such as the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information which manages GenBank, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, or the National Biological Information Infrastructure. The envisioned informatics center could also include systematics data on the nation's biodiversity and explore how modern informatic tools can speed their identification and documentation. 6. Governance: It was envisioned that NEON would be governed by several committee groups with responsibility for different aspects, such as informatics and facility and program evaluation. Both centralized and decentralized approaches were proposed in the workshops, possibly because some workshop croups were not aware of the management 1 0 1 83

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES requirements for MREFC. The proposed operational governance structure may result in a large bureaucracy that would hinder NEON operations, rather than help. Although different suggestions were put forward on NEON guidance, no groups specified how the governing body or bodies would be supported and funded. To determine the success and effects of NEON, it was recommended that NEON be evaluated at both the observatory level and the network level. The third workshop developed evaluation criteria for individual observatories, and for the network as a whole (NSF 2000c). An individual observatory would be evaluated with respect to such items as use by the scientific community, quality of the research, ability to attract high-quality users, and access to data. Network-level review would look at the gains achieved in science, technology, data, education, and process. Suggested alternative: The committee endorses NSF's proposal of a NEON coordinating unit to oversee the implementation and operation of NEON and to ensure integration of observatories. We recommend a single scientific oversight committee, preferably formed by a neutral body, such as a multiuniversity consortium. The committee would work with NSF to ensure that adequate resources are available to sustain NEON operation and that the goals of NEON are met. The committee would also solicit input from the broad scientific community for designs and improvement of NEON to ensure its effectiveness. 7. Education and outreach: NEON would present unprecedented opportunities for education and outreach and for conveying the value and relevance of environmental biology research to a large audience. NEON observatories were to communicate information to the scientific commu- nity, to local, regional and national decision-makers, to the general public, and to the fuD range of students, from kindergarten to graduate students. The committee agreed with those goals but found few details on how education and outreach goals would be achieved and who might be responsible for carrying out the plans. a Suggested alternative: Multiple systematic educational programs should be integrated into NEON's plan so that program plans and 1 0 1 84

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A Synthesis of Early Concepts of the National Ecological Observatory Network and a New Vision facilities for education and outreach would be included from the incep- tion of each observatory. 8. Partnerships: NEON would involve extensive partnering and collaboration among many, often disparate, groups. The inclusion of other government agencies already involved in scientific research, net- working, land management, and so on was snecificaDv recommended. . 1 J However, there was no discussion of how or when it might be achieved. A review of ad workshop participants also showed an absence of repre- sentatives of federal agencies. Suggested alternative: The next phase of NEON planning and development should include plans for partnerships and collaboration with other federal agencies. Establishing memoranda of understanding is one way to facilitate collaboration. Such issues as access to facilities, standardization of data collection, access to data and research coordina- tion should be discussed. Although the committee proposes modification of the NEON implementation plan, it agrees with the fundamental concept of NEON as stated by NSF and with most of the recommendations derived from the six workshops. The committee hopes that its suggestions will help fib the gap between the NEON mission and the implementation plan that emerged from the workshops to fulfill the requirements of the MREFC program. The workshops provided crucial documentation and careful consid- eration of essential building blocks from which a focused vision could emerge. The documents included fundamental insights into how and why a NEON network should function. By consideration of ad available material, the committee tried to extract the best ideas from the disparate set of recommendations and then focused and refined them to propose a new, better-targeted, more-integrated vision for NEON. 85

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