Dave Schimel

URL: http://www.neoninc.org/about/staff/david-schimel


Dave Schimel brings a wealth of relevant experience to his work at NEON; he served as a Senior Terrestrial Scientist in NCAR’s Climate and Global Dynamics Division for 16 years, and was Founding Co-Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry. Dave is one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 2007 on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, and has authored more than 150 papers on biogeochemistry climate impacts on ecosystems and the global carbon cycle. Dave also serves as the Editor in Chief of Ecological Applications for the Ecological Society of America. His career has focused on the large-scale relationships of land management and climate change on ecosystem processes and includes expertise in managing large, complex research projects, remote sensing, data management, modeling, and the application of ecological research to science policy development. Dave served as CEO of NEON from 2006 to 2011, overseeing NEON's design and development phase to successful completion.

Latest posts

  1. Macrosystems Biology: How to share, manage and cite big data and team science? — April 12, 2012
  2. Constructing the NEON user facility to support projects large and small — February 13, 2012
  3. Behind the push for NEON — July 28, 2011
  4. The natural progression to sustainability — March 1, 2010
  5. Welcome to the new NEON blog! — September 7, 2009

Most commented posts

  1. The natural progression to sustainability — 1 comment
  2. Behind the push for NEON — 1 comment
  3. Macrosystems Biology: How to share, manage and cite big data and team science? — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Macrosystems Biology: How to share, manage and cite big data and team science?

Last month, I participated in the first Principal Investigator meeting of NSF’s new Macrosystems Biology program. The NSF solicits proposals to “support quantitative, interdisciplinary, systems-oriented research on biosphere processes and their complex interactions with climate, land use, and invasive species at regional to continental scales.”

The first groups of projects cover an incredible range of topics, and are embracing a wide range of research approaches. In a pre-meeting survey, projects reported using simulation models, developing new theory, fitting empirical models to multi-scaled data, analyzing paleoecological data and implementing experiments across linked networks ofsites. Almost half the groups reflected the newness of the continental-scale approach by including significant educational activities.

The last half-day of the first Macrosystems Biology PI meeting took place at NEON HQ and packed our largest meeting room to the brim.

The last half-day of the first Macrosystems Biology PI meeting took place at NEON HQ and packed our largest meeting room to the brim.

The meeting as a whole had a rough-and tumble flavor to it, as groups explored new ideas, exchanged ideas between groups and created new ideas from the fusion of each team’s perspectives. There was an unusually intense sense of intellectual ferment. I felt like I was seeing the early stages of a new approach to environmental science emerging.

Although the program is called “macrosystems”, most of the excitement was about working at multiple spatial scales. Researchers were making serious efforts to understand how influences crossed scales. Examples included how regional and global climate affected individual organisms, how local communities (present day and paleo) were affected by large-scale movement of organisms, and how those movements were affected by global climate and how the organismal biology of lakes varies across macroclimatic gradients. Although the NSF call emphasized the continental scale, most of the projects recognized that processes that play out over large areas also take a long time to play out, and so coupled time and space scales.

During the last half-day of the meeting, smaller groups met outside of NEON HQ to talk over ideas for an upcoming special issue of a journal …

Some of the commonalities were methodological. Very few of the projects could answer their questions with data and data analysis alone, and had to integrate theoretical and computational models with observations. Similarly, none of the projects could answer their questions with models alone, so some projects included large scale data-gathering efforts, while others were harvesting vast quantities of existing data from ongoing observations, experiments and data archives. Each project brought a data manager to the meeting, and so interwoven with the scientific discussion was a rich conversation about the new informatics and computation resources that exist or are needed.

Participants also addressed the culture of science. Data sharing was a common theme: scientists interested in studying the continent need to access data across many sites, and barriers to sharing data are barriers to them testing their hypotheses! The macrosystems teams spent a lot of time talking about how to share data technologically and also how credit can be given and shared in enterprises where a few creative individuals have an idea that requires harvesting data from tens or even hundreds of their colleagues. Most of the teams have plans to publish data so that it can be shared, cited and included in academic reward systems.

Collaboration was a related theme, and raised similar issues. How do we build teams that include the breadth of expertise needed to address big problems, allowing each member to contribute technical knowledge and leadership while sharing the credit? How can young scientists work in these exciting teams and still be recognized and promotable? Many macrosystems projects don’t emphasize collecting new data or plan to use data from the NEON facility. This implies a cohort of students who won’t conduct their own fieldwork in support of their dissertations. How will such students be received when they apply for jobs, and for promotion? There were no definitive answers, but a great conversation began, and some of the more senior participants were energized to raise the profile of these issues in their institutions!

Many of these issues will be discussed in a forthcoming special issue of a journal. Stay tuned for an exciting read!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2012/04/macrosystems-biology-how-to-share-manage-and-cite-big-data-and-team-science/

Constructing the NEON user facility to support projects large and small

In just under four months, civil construction will begin at the first NEON site. The timing couldn’t be better. Ecosystems are increasingly stressed by climate, movement of invasive species over long distances, transport of pollution in the atmosphere, and human land use decisions. Analyzing these large-scale, complicated phenomena requires measuring or manipulating stresses and measuring biological responses in more complex, more expensive programs.

NEON is being constructed in response to these growing challenges of multiple stresses and multiple scales in ecosystem science. Such challenges can be addressed by large, integrated projects and well-funded teams, but NEON provides another model. NEON is often considered a “big science” project. In fact, it is a large user facility that supports individual PIs and students, as well as small and large teams equally!

Dave Schimel explains how large facilities like NEON differ from large multi-investigator projects, and how various types of users can utilize data and resources from NEON and other sources.

Science user facilities provide resources that can be efficiently shared over many investigators and educators, or are too costly for individuals or institutions to maintain. Such facilities also make state-of-the-science capabilities accessible to a wide range of users.

As a user facility, NEON provides free and openly available data and a variety of other resources for use by the public:

  • Data over space and time.
    NEON data are focused on multiple stresses (climate, land use and invasive species) and on many key responses at the ecosystem and species level. Individual researchers and small teams can simply use these data, or embed targeted studies in this large information base and make use of NEON observations of drivers of change. For example, a researcher or group of researchers interested in the spread of invasives across a specific landscape can request the NEON airborne remote sensing system be deployed to their study area, and gain access to a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art system.
  • Project management.
    On even larger scales and longer terms, scientists can request relocatable deployments to address emerging, important questions with the NEON facility providing the wide range of disciplines needed to implement such observations as well as covering the sustained costs and labor to maintain quality data over years to decades. This relieves a PI from the common dilemma of choosing between devoting themselves to maintaining a study and spending much of their time on fundraising and logistics. Instead, these functions are carried out by expert professionals, and the PI need only analyze the data that results.
  • State of the art infrastructure.
    The scale, duration and ambition of individual or team projects can be greatly increased by access to a user facility. The PI or his/her institution need not own and maintain costly equipment or maintain costly facilities in the field. Instead, by sharing the user facility, researchers gain as much access to that capability as needed and for as long as needed. Access to state-of-the-art capability also levels the playing field between large, well-funded institutions, and smaller institutions without resources to provide large start-up packages.
  • Advancing educational resources and broadening participation.
    User facilities can greatly increase the diversity of scientists doing world-class ecological science. User facilities enable PIs at undergraduate institutions to conduct world class research, and they are available to researchers at HBCU institutions and EPSCOR states. Facilities also allow young scientists to gain experience with world-class data and instrumentation that was not part of their training. This model works in other fields such as oceanography and astronomy, where primarily undergraduate institution faculty are often leaders in their disciplines.

While scientists often focus on the cost of facilities, the scientists who integrate NEON into their research gain access to capability far more costly than typically covered in research projects. This expanded access to research capability has the potential to greatly increase the diversity of the field and expand the number of people who can contribute. As ecologists seriously begin to address ecology at the continental scale, the comprehensive data, spatial extent and remote sensing technology will allow a large and diverse user community to tackle new questions at scales not accessible to previous generations of ecologists.

And so, with not a moment to spare, let the building begin.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2012/02/constructing-the-neon-user-facility-to-support-projects-large-and-small/

Behind the push for NEON

Climate is changing rapidly and rates of climate change may well be more rapid than ecological systems can respond.  This year’s 30-year climate normals (1981-2010) are 0.5o warmer than the 1971-2000 baseline.  While climate, land cover and invasive species are changing rapidly, as Terry Root, Camille Parmesan and colleagues have shown, species ranges change at highly variable rates and significant changes to more mobile and/or vulnerable species are already evident.

The National Ecological Observatory is a bold effort to begin characterizing bioclimate, species distributions and ecosystem function early enough in this era of rapid change to form a rigorous basis for ecological forecasting in a time of complex and unprecedented change.

In a dynamic climate, species distributions may be matched to their environment (e.g. for highly mobile species), or they may be in disequilibrium (for long-lived or dispersal-limited species).  Modern ecology began late in the Holocene period, a 12,000-year long period of relatively stable climate conditions during the latter part of which global mean temperatures varied by only a degree or so.  While this time period was not long enough for complete biotic adjustment to temperature (As Margaret David has shown, some northern tree species were still migrating north as the Anthropocene began), it did allow for the development of relative stability of biotic communities.  Evidence from atmospheric CO2 and its isotopes, sensitive indicators of large-scale biotic change, support the idea that despite emerging human activity, the biosphere and its large-scale carbon balance were relatively quiescent.

As a result, ecologists and conservation biologists often assume that species traits will remain in equilibrium with climate and other factors, leading to widespread use of techniques such as gradient analysis and climate envelope techniques with climate and other environmental factors, concepts that date back to at least Whittaker.  But as climate – and the environmental factors that NEON will measure – change (land use, air quality, effects of invasions on species distributions), not only does information from quasi-stable correlations between climate and species distributions vanish, but forecasting becomes intrinsically more difficult.

Steve Carpenter and colleagues have shown that as systems move further from steady state, complex dynamics become more and more likely, and non-climatic factors such as dispersal, competition and human impacts (land use, invasives) may dominate before climate effects once again stabilize. In addition to physiological changes driving community dynamics, climate effects on disturbance regimes (for example wildfire or the North American Mountain Pine Beetle) may drive ecosystems into states not readily predictable from our current limited data.

All of this points to the need for ecological forecasting in support of future management of ecosystems and ecosystem services.

Further, the situation creates an imperative for sustaining and enhancing the current efforts to characterize global biodiversity and functional diversity by any means feasible.  NEON, coordinating studies of drivers of change, species-level biology and integrated ecosystem function, will play a key role in building this knowledge.  There are many reasons for this, but a major one is to understand the environmental sensitivity of the globe’s current living systems.

NEON data will provide a foundation for predictive modeling to identify the vulnerability of the current biosphere, and as a foundation for adaptation in the future.  As the climate changes, concurrent with changes to land use, widespread biological invasions and disturbance regimes, data collected on species distributions in the future will contain less and less information about species traits and their relationship to the environment. The urgency of obtaining global data on biodiversity and functional diversity, and obtaining coordinated and continental-scale observations while stable late Holocene distributions still exist, remains an imperative even in these challenging times for science, the nation, and the world.

We want to hear from you, your thoughts on the possibilities for what NEON can become, and answer your questions.  Please send communication to sciquestions@neoninc.org.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2011/07/behind-the-push-for-neon/

The natural progression to sustainability

NEON’s primary role is to observe changes in our natural world and enable scientists and decision makers to use information to address the challenges presented by environmental change. As such, NEON, Inc. and its staff recognize our responsibility to help make a positive contribution in a world that continues to experience unprecedented economic, environmental, and social challenges.

green-handsFurther, NEON’s stewardship of National Science Foundation funds implies conserving tax dollars making its existence possible in the first place, and maximizing the proportion of funding and all other resources directly accomplishing science goals.

Thus, it seems only natural that at the core of NEON’s mission is a dedication to sustainability, and it makes perfect sense that NEON will embrace efficiency to the extent possible. NEON is committed to minimizing its environmental footprint and will operate sustainably and develop sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices.

Since NEON is a new project, as it grows in size and scope, its footprint also grows. In our first annual sustainability report (2009) we share our progress in addressing the challenges associated with greening a brand-new, growing organization, identify where we believe we can have the most impact, and acknowledge our opportunities for continued improvement. We’re both taking advantage of the changes and improvements we can make in the short term, and simultaneously strategizing how to synthesize sustainability into our long-term plans.

Despite working under restrictions of a building lease and constant growth and change, our report notes that NEON took several strong steps in 2009 to minimize environmental impacts. Some of NEON’s major sustainability actions include energy auditing, changing light bulbs building-wide, establishing a successful compost and recycling program, and producing only 100% recycled, FSC-certified marketing materials.

NEON is a project of firsts; we’re the first continental-scale ecological observatory and the first NSF facility of the BIO Directorate. I hope we can soon add to our list that we have become the first facility to lead the charge on bringing comprehensive, aggressive sustainable practices as a core component of our strategy. After reviewing our first annual sustainability report for 2009, one of our NSF colleagues, Peter McEvoy, commented: “This looks very inspiring…. and very fitting that the National Ecological Observatory Network would be leaders in this area for us to consider emulating.”

I’m proud to say that our sustainability report has been distributed to other NSFG-supported facility projects for them to use in developing their own plans.

We recognize our road to sustainability may be rocky at times. For example, NEON’s national scope means that travel will dominate our carbon footprint for the foreseeable future. We have already begun planning options for mitigating our impacts; incorporated into our construction and operations plans will be means to take advantage of every possible collaboration technology and management strategy that will reduce the need for travel.

Sustainability cannot be a stand-alone issue that’s separate from or unrelated to our projects. It’s not an abstract or philanthropic program. Simply put, sustainability will be built into NEON’s plans because it is an integral part of NEON’s mission. It is also an outgrowth of the ideals and energy of NEON’s staff. NEON’s sustainable trajectory was initiated by a self-organized group of NEON employees that came together on its own initiative and began the process that led the first report and plans.

Like the grassroots pioneers that created the concept for a continental-scale ecological observatory, the sustainability group has pioneered a plan for NEON to become a sustainable distributed science facility – truly an organic outgrowth of our company’s spirit and vision.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2010/03/the-natural-progression-to-sustainability/

Welcome to the new NEON blog!

As NEON enters the second half of its planning and design phase, I’m excited to introduce you to a new way to learn about us and keep in touch: the NEON blog. We hope that NEON’s blog will be informative and insightful, and we encourage you to keep in touch with us via comments and insights of your own.

I want to kick off our first blog with some background on how NEON, Inc. came to be and its role as a player in the ecological community.

When the National Science Foundation (NSF) requested proposals for planning the National Ecological Observatory Network Project, one of the required deliverables was a legally-incorporated non-profit company to eventually design, construct and operate the network.

Many disciplines have such organizations operating major facilities. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and supports the atmospheric sciences. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL) fulfills a similar role in the ocean sciences, and the Associated Universities Incorporated (AUI) operated many of the nation’s astronomical observatories on behalf of universities and the NSF. These organizations, sometimes called “implementing organizations,” complement the university research establishment by: (1) providing a neutral party to operate major facilities to avoid destructive competition between universities, and (2) by providing an organization with strong capabilities in science, engineering, computing and highly complex and technical project management.

NEON, Inc. was designed to fulfill both of these roles. NEON, Inc. is a non-profit, membership organization with (currently) 56 member universities who elect members of the Board of Directors to the company. Those scientist-members of the Board of Directors represent both the ecological sciences and the interests of the member universities in NEON, Inc.’s management. So to fulfill the first role, the involvement of the members and the role academia plays in governance of the company is a major aspect of maintaining NEON, Inc. as a neutral party operating a facility on behalf of the entire ecological community and not uniquely benefiting one or a small consortium of universities.

NEON, Inc. has a unique structure intended to fulfill the second role. The company created a project management team employing modern techniques that allow designing and costing of large and complex projects. The project management team, composed of highly skilled project management engineers, “orchestrates” the work of all the rest of the NEON teams: the Science team (which defines and develops the required observing strategies for NEON), the Instruments and Integration team (which develops the hardware to implement the science observations, and required infrastructure), the Computing team (which develops the hardware and software to capture, store and process the data NEON will produce), and the Education and Public Engagement team (which develops the strategy and tools to make the NEON data usable for science, education and policy). For NEON to be designed and built, these teams need to work together as peers.

The Observatory derives its goals from peer-reviewed, community developed documents (for example, the Integrated Science and Education Plan). All NEON, Inc, company functions are expected to work together to implement these goals, on behalf of NEON’s sponsor – the National Science Foundation – and ultimately, the ecological community.

Our analogy for NEON’s management structure is of gears interlocking within a machine; all are equally necessary and all must connect.

The complexity of the NEON design task is daunting. NEON will have fixed sites at over 100 locations (including terrestrial and aquatic environments), in environments ranging from the humid tropics to the arctic tundra. Aquatic sites will be in first order streams, ponds and a few large rivers; terrestrial sites in ecosystems with canopy heights ranging from 10 cm to almost 100 m. Within each Domain, 584 types of primary data will be collected (including instrumental and human observations, and lab analyses). NEON’s cyberinfrastructure must integrate these point observations with aircraft and satellite measurements using complex models to produce estimates of national responses to a changing environment. Describing this plan for a preliminary design review (held in May of 2009) required almost 4000 pages of documentation, and included gigabytes of supporting material, such as maps, engineering drawings and spreadsheets. NEON’s design team now numbers 60 full-time employees, with over 200 active members of working groups, review teams and project consultants participating in different roles. This truly is a first-of-a-kind enterprise.

If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to utilize the resources offered on the rest of NEON’s web site, which continues to grow. Come visit us at upcoming events or give us a call. We look forward to being a resource to all of the ecological community and we’re interested in your thoughts.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2009/09/hello-world/