San Diego

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has endorsed the creation of an ambitious network of ecological research stations that the National Science Foundation has been advocating for the past six years.

The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will provide a system for continental-scale experiments on ecological systems and will assist in predicting environmental change.

Congressional funding for NEON — whose observatories could cost $20 million each to build, plus $3 million in annual operating costs — has repeatedly been stalled for political or budgetary reasons. Supporters hope that the NAS report, completed last week after four months of study, will encourage Congress to fund the $12-million first phase during the 2004 federal fiscal year beginning on 1 October. A funding decision will be made within the next few weeks.

The 77-page NAS report, compiled by a panel of 14 scientists, recommends that NEON should concentrate on six major ecological observatories: biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, climate change, infectious diseases, invasive species and habitat alternation.

The NSF had initially proposed 17 observatories, but the panel says that concentrating on six ecological issues would allow a better focus. “We think it will produce better science this way,” says David Tilman, a plant ecologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St Paul, who chaired the NAS panel.

A NEON observatory would include a core site linked by the Internet to satellite facilities and complementary institutions such as a university, government lab or museum. The core site would concentrate instrumentation for data collection, processing and analysis. Scientists in the complementary organizations could then study a target ecological issue in a variety of environments, from grasslands to forests and deserts to waterways.

John Aber, a biogeochemist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a NAS panel member, says that the committee has given the NSF flexibility to create NEONs through competition.

“The first NEON observatory should be national in scope,” says Aber. But it will be up to the NSF to decide whether competitions should be launched in all six areas, or in only one, in the first round of funding, he adds.