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.