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C H A P T E R S I X Findings and Recommendations Dranging on the reports of past workshops on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), on the synthesis of those reports by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, on the National Research Council report on Grand Challenges in Environ- mental Science and on the expertise of its own members, the committee identified six large-scare environmental issues of national concern. It then examined NSF's conception of NEON and assessed whether NEON's national network of field and laboratory research infrastructure would be an appropriate and necessary means of addressing those large- scale issues. The effect that NEON may have on the scientific community and on the next generation of scientists was also assessed. The committee's findings and recommendations are summarized below. 87

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES 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 biogeo- chemical cycles; ecological implications of climate change; ecology and evolution of infectious diseases; invasive species; and land use and 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 response 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 88

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Findings and Recommendations continental-scare experimental and observational research on the nation's ecological systems to obtain an in-depth understanding of the environ- ment. That knowledge could serve as a basis for developing predictive capability and would allow assessment of how alternative societal actions and policies will affect species and ecosystems and the services that they provide to society. 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 continental-scale research. Recommendation 3 Each NEON observatory should be initiated as a nationwide net- work of facilities and infrastructure designed for 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 infra- structure needs, complete construction of each observatory could succes- sively build on sites and infrastructure as each one is established. Each later observatory could leverage investments made in the existing ones; this would increase the effectiveness and decrease the cost of the entire network. 89

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES 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 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: . 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 90

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Findings and Recommendations and optimize data collection and sharing. Establishing memoranda of a 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 coordinating unit, preferably formed by a neutral body such as a multiuniversity consortium, provide this oversight. Finding 5 The challenge of educating the next generation of scientists, teachers, and students and of 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 Tong-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 91

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NEON: ADDRESSING THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES 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. 92