The advancement of science requires it to be iteratively challenged, and periodically, we must revise our thinking. Elucidating new understanding is part of the excitement of the scientific process, and we scientists tend to hop from failure to failure, taking action as we continue to search for “the real thing.” It is safe to say that the scientific process embodies false starts, misinterpreted results, and failures; these are essential to its success.
Much has changed since the early years of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). As with other large-scale research infrastructure, design refinement was to be expected. The scientific understanding, technology, and opportunities have since changed, but most of the original NEON designs have been static and settled. Some of the unanticipated elements of the original observatory design proved challenging and ultimately infeasible to implement. The well-publicized projected cost overruns and observatory descoping required the NEON Board; the Science, Technology, and Education Advisory Committee (STEAC); and outside experts to make recommendations for the final implementation of the observatory. The intention of these recommendations was to ensure that the scientific integrity of the observatory was maintained at the highest level while reducing cost, but even more important, while eliminating investments that were either programmatically unviable or no longer of sufficient scientific interest to merit further spending. In the process, some science capability was deferred, and other choices were made to replace earlier designs with innovative alternatives.
In the spring of 2016, the Battelle Memorial Institute entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation to manage the NEON. Battelle will oversee the completion of NEON construction and correct some of the root causes of past delays, as well as establish and test early NEON operations. However, taking a “build it and they will come” approach will not be successful with the ecological community. Therefore, Battelle and NEON's leadership are eager to engage and collaborate with our stakeholder communities to get the most out of NEON science.
At this critical juncture, the overarching priority is to establish a new framework for engaging the scientific community. Battelle and NEON leadership will re-envision operational activities to create an observatory that is well defined but nimble, able to meet its overall scientific mission and accommodate stakeholder needs. Our initial goal is to ensure community support and involvement with three main initiatives: (1) a new visiting scientists program, (2) new postdoctoral fellow opportunities, and (3) a more diverse and empowered STEAC. Together, our path forward is to include NEON's stakeholder community to determine other activities to enhance our engagement. This will require new skills that are not part of the traditional academic scientific curriculum, such as collaboration, management, and negotiation, in addition to advancing frontier science. Creativity and innovation in ecological sciences are accomplished through coordinated and collaborative efforts that remove old boundaries. Current scientific research paradigms and infrastructures need to be transformed in ways that enable scientists to address the most pressing environmental problems of the twenty-first century. If successful, the rewards in ecological innovation for societal benefit and the potential to advance ecological theory will be enormous.