The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) was born of a grand vision: a network of research stations that would enable observations of ecological change on a continental scale. With a planned 81 terrestrial and aquatic field stations across the United States with the potential to produce hundreds of different data products, NEON is the most ambitious ecological research project ever envisioned.
But bringing that vision to life has required unprecedented logistical planning and execution. Planning for NEON began in 2006 and construction for the NEON observatories was approved in 2011. When Battelle took the reins as the lead contractor overseeing construction in June of 2016, only 20% of the planned field stations were operational. Over the last 15 months, Battelle has brought another 40% of the field stations online and tripled the number of data products the stations are producing.
Fully 61% of the NEON infrastructure has now been transitioned from Construction Phase to the Initial Operations Phase. All but three of the 81 sites are anticipated to be fully operational and producing data products by April of 2018. Two field stations, one in Hawaii and one in Wyoming, will complete construction by August 2018. Two additional stations in California have completed the Construction Phase and will begin producing data products once environmental permitting issues are resolved.
Breaking Down Silos to Accelerate Construction
When Battelle took over in 2016, construction was proceeding slowly. The Battelle team quickly realized that this was due in part to the way the construction and operational teams had been siloed, leading to disconnects between the teams and with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the NEON project.
Battelle’s first order of business was to break down these silos and establish clear lines of command and communication between construction, operations and NSF. This transparency and unity of command has been instrumental in moving the project forward.
The new project teams are built on well-established principles of project management that Battelle’s leadership team has honed over decades of work on large, complex scientific projects and laboratory management. Each portion of the project is directed not by a single manager but by a collaborative project team that works together to ensure that the needs of all stakeholders are met.
Balancing the Needs of Scientists, Funders and Operators
Successful completion of the NEON network hinges on looking at the needs of all stakeholders equally. This includes NSF, who as the funder must ensure that the project is completed within the set timelines and budgets. The other primary stakeholder is the scientific community who will be using the data products produced by NEON.
Battelle brings a unique ability to understand the needs of both sides. For decades, Battelle has managed seven of the National Labs, overseeing federal projects and budgets worth billions of dollars. They also bring extensive scientific expertise in environmental science, ecology, analytical chemistry, data analytics and other areas related to NEON’s mission. The Battelle team brings not only excellence in program and project management but also a deep understanding of the end goals that NEON is aiming for, how data products will ultimately be used by the scientific community, and the realities of field data collection.
Building the Battelle Team
The Battelle team is led by Rick Farnsworth, who acts as Senior Program Manager for the NEON construction project. Rick has been with Battelle since 2004 and overseen several large-scale projects, including a multi-year contract for the Department of Defense for Biothreat Reduction. Tom Gulbransen, a Battelle Senior Research Scientist with 32+ years of data science experience, oversees cyberinfrastructure and development of data products. Larry Davidson manages site construction, and Ellie Baptiste-Carpenter is in charge of the initial operations phase of the observatory network. The team is rounded out by Verna Tomanik, Lead Financial Analyst, and Kathy Kirby, Deputy Program Manager in charge of risk management and permitting.
They are working together with dozens of other environmental scientists, construction managers, engineers, data scientists, project managers and field operational specialists to bring the NEON network online. Many of these team members were retained from the NEON, Inc. phase of the project, bringing valuable institutional knowledge gained from the first years of construction. The remaining members are pulled from among the best and brightest in Battelle to round out the team with additional scientific, data analytics and project management experience. Battelle also brings a unique capacity to reach back across the entire Battelle organization to find scientific and engineering expertise to address specific challenges.
Moving NEON into the Future
When NEON goes fully online in 2018, it will be the largest ecological observatory network in the world. By the end of 2017, all of the data products—encompassing 180 terrestrial, aquatic and airborne field observations and sensor data points—will be complete and available online for anyone in the scientific community to use. The breadth and depth of data across all of the biomes in the United States will provide an unprecedented view into how ecosystems are adapting to changes in climate, land use and the introduction of invasive species.
The breakneck pace of construction and product development that the team has maintained over the last 15 months will continue into 2018 as the data products are rolled out to the public and scientific community and the remaining observatories come online. NSF recently announced that Battelle’s contract, originally set to end in March of 2018, will be extended through October 31, 2020, with an option to extend through October 31, 2021. During this time, the Battelle team will oversee the transition of all of the observatories from construction phase to operations and the initial phase of field and sensor data collection.
“This is transformative science that has never been done before, and the data will be free to anyone who wants to use it,” says Rick Farnsworth. “This is the most egalitarian scientific project that has ever been conceived. We’re making environmental data available to anyone in the world with a web connection, not just to the scientific elite. There is no telling what will happen when you open up that kind of access. You never know who is going to change the world.”