On 22 July 2006, Jim MacMahon, chairman of the NEON Board of Directors, posted the following letter online ( www.neoninc.org/archive/2006/07/a_letter_to_the.html) to update the broad ecological community and others on NEON activities.
It has been several months since the last update on the progress in planning the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The NEON Board felt that we should get a status update out to the broad ecological community, as well as to nonecologists who have helped design NEON. While we have our own lists of people interested in NEON, others such as COREO and ESA were kind enough to send this note to their e-mail lists.
Where to start? The end of 2005 marked a transition from NEON as a simple NSF project to NEON as a formal, not-for-profit corporation in the District of Columbia, complete with bylaws, a conflict-of-interest policy for its governing body, IRS-sanctioned 501(c)(3) status, preparations to be certified by NSF to receive direct funding, and a Board of Directors initially composed of the former Senior Management Team. Over the next few months the Board and leadership of NEON will evolve. Such evolution occurs in nearly all large research programs as they reach different stages in their life histories.
Bruce Hayden, Bill Michener, Jeff Goldman, and our cadre of science associates who form the nexus of our Washington office that is sited with AIBS became deeply involved in developing several versions of documents that had to be completed and submitted on a very tight schedule to compete for Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) funds from NSF under its Large Research Facility Projects requirements. It should be of special interest to our community that MREFC funds have never before been accessed by a biology project. The downside of this is that both NSF and all of us are plowing new ground, sailing unfamiliar waters, or some other pithy way of expressing that we are doing things individual scientists do not usually have to contend with. The two NEON documents of greatest interest to the scientific community at the moment are the Integrated Science and Education Plan (ISEP) and the Networking and Informatics Baseline Design (NIBD). Both of these can be found on the NEON website under the “Documents” section. A revised version of the ISEP, informed by external review, will be produced over the next few months.
The ISEP was the result of three workshops of more than 150 scientists that developed the scientific questions and general design of NEON. This was followed by elaboration of these plans by the Senior Management Team with the addition of about six other colleagues. This group was termed the National Network Design Committee. There was a lot of back and forth about what we wanted to do, what could we do, how do we get the best science, how can we best phrase the questions we want to address, and on and on. Several times in this period, small committees of scientists and technologically sophisticated colleagues were invited to review the products and changes were made. The scientists and committees involved in planning NEON to this point, including the Board of Directors, are available on the NEON website in the “People” section. Developing NEON, at least to me, has always been an organic process where we expect constant change as we sharpen the program. Many of us have changed our positions several times to this point in NEON's development and we will change them again in the future. As I imply above, change and adaptive management are our only constants at this time.
Both the NIBD and ISEP have undergone merit review by NSF. The NIBD was favorably reviewed and accepted by NSF. The ISEP was merit reviewed by a panel in April. This review was followed by a second merit review in May where NEON Inc. met with the second panel. Following these reviews, the NEON Inc. Board of Directors had the opportunity to respond, in person, to NSF.
The two ISEP panel reviews had a number of very pointed observations that suggested changes in some of the structure of NEON governance, the deployment of equipment, and an expansion of the very small experimental program that was envisioned at the time. By the time the NEON team met with the NSF leadership on 14 June 2006, several changes had already been suggested by the NEON Board of Directors. These suggestions not only addressed the criticisms in the reviews but also improved the program, both structurally and scientifically.
The next step is to convene a new committee to make the final revisions to the ISEP. The NEON Board of Directors, in consultation with NSF, has worked to develop this committee so that it includes a broad and diverse membership. This committee will begin its work immediately. Then, as the final ISEP is finished, Requests for Information (RFI) will be released to the community so that consortia can align themselves to implement the NEON plan.
So where are we with NEON? First and foremost, NEON is alive and well. Candidly, it is gratifying to put to rest the gloom and doom that I have heard from some in the community. Second, we are moving forward rapidly in evolving this organic entity called NEON into a research program that ecologists, other scientists, educators, and engineers, and indeed the nation, will be proud of. The recent changes will increase community involvement in NEON, provide for the possibility of experiments, and give more latitude to the consortia that will form the NEON domains, with regard to implementation. And all of this can and will be done without sacrificing the continental scale of NEON and its focus on scientific questions that are of scientific as well as national interest.
I wish that more details could be included in this note, but there is still work to be done before we roll out the next iteration of the NEON program plans. By my count, over 1500 individuals have been involved in NEON to this point. We want to thank all of those NEON designers for their help. Without them there would be no NEON. We also want encourage all of you to keep track of NEON on the NEON website, and we hope that when you are called to provide help you will be excited to do so.
Personally, NEON has been an emotional roller coaster. I remember the early days, nearly a decade ago, when I spoke with NSF about a project, now called NEON. I got excited about the concept until not much happened and my interest lagged. Enthusiasm began to return when NSF funded AIBS to sponsor workshops and meetings to discuss NEON under the IBRCS banner. Then when our team was awarded the cooperative agreement to help design NEON, I was ebullient, but when the planning work piled up and some of the reviews voiced criticisms, I regressed for a few days. The current improvements have buoyed my spirits, and this time, unabashedly, I believe I will be on a permanent high.
It's worth repeating: NEON is alive and well and will continue to evolve until it matures. Right now it is looking like a vibrant young entity that will grow and learn. Its potential is truly remarkable and I am proud to work with the hundreds of you who have gotten us to this point.
Chairman, NEON Board of Directors
Trustee Professor of Biology and Director of the Ecology Center
Utah State University