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Dismissals cause turmoil for US ecology project

Sudden leadership changes at the National Ecological Observatory Network prompt the resignation of its top scientist and the dissolution of its advisory board.

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Sunrise at the NEON tower outside Barrow, Alaska

NEON operates this instrument-laden tower in Alaska, which gathers data on the surrounding taiga ecosystem.Credit: Chris McKay, Batelle Memorial Inst.

An ecological observatory funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) is in turmoil after a top leader quit and its advisory board was dissolved.

On 4 January, the contractor that manages the US$434-million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) dismissed two long-time project managers. NEON’s scientific director, Sharon Collinge, who says she was not consulted about the moves, resigned in protest on 8 January. Later that day, the contractor disbanded the organization’s scientific advisory board.

In an e-mail to the advisory board — seen by Nature — Battelle, the non-profit contractor in Columbus, Ohio, that runs NEON, said that its actions were driven by the “changing needs of the research community”.

NEON has almost finished constructing a web of more than 80 ecological observation sites across the United States, and is beginning to produce data for ecologists to analyse. “Given the maturation of the NEON project, it is appropriate to re-examine the charter of our external advisory group,” said Battelle’s chief scientist, Michael Kuhlman.

The turmoil is the latest in a long line of woes for NEON, which launched in 2000 and has faced ballooning budgets and allegations of mismanagement by its previous operator. Battelle took over NEON’s operations in 2016 and, in 2018, appointed Collinge, an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, as the network’s observatory director and chief scientist. The non-profit also created the 20-member Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC) to advise NEON.

Bad blood

STEAC members credit Battelle with saving NEON, and construction of its observatories is now on schedule. But several see the dismissals and cancellation of the board as a breach of trust with the scientists who hope to use NEON data. “That’s burning bridges, which you just can't afford to do in a small community,” says Ankur Desai, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“I understand fully that this is very difficult and emotional for some people,” says Battelle spokesperson Patrick Jarvis. “Our goal remains to develop amazing data products and help the research community understand what’s going on at the broadest ecological level.”

Some ecologists question whether the timing of Battelle’s management shake-up — which coincided with a US government shutdown that has left most NSF employees unable to work or even respond to e-mails — was deliberate.

Jarvis says that the government shutdown had nothing to do with the timing of the decision, which he says was driven by the need to improve the programme’s efficiency and free up more resources for science. “We are in constant contact with NSF in the operation of this network,” he says.

Collinge, who took temporary leave from her faculty position in February 2018 to manage NEON, says that she had experienced tension with Battelle about her role in management decisions and personnel issues. But the dismissals took her by surprise. “I felt we were working toward a situation that would be mutually agreeable,” she says.

She felt blindsided when she learnt that Battelle had suddenly dismissed two senior NEON managers: Wendy Gram, an ecologist who served as NEON’s education director, and Richard Leonard, its vice-president for research infrastructure. Collinge says that Battelle acted without her knowledge or consent. “To me, that made my position really untenable,” she says. Battelle told Nature that it is the sole decision-maker on NEON personnel issues.

Panel scrapped

After Collinge resigned, Kuhlman disbanded the programme’s board of advisers. He told the departing board that Battelle would soon develop a new charter and advisory board to “align to the new priorities which come with full operation of the network”.

Kuhlman has appointed Eugene Kelly, a soil researcher at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, as temporary chief scientist while the company looks for a permanent NEON science chief.

Jarvis says that Battelle will appoint a new advisory council “in the very near future”, after Kelly begins work and Battelle can consult with the NSF.

Scott Collins, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and member of the disbanded STEAC, worries that without input from ecologists, Battelle might make decisions that could hamper researchers’ ability to access NEON data and collaborate with NEON employees. “Many think NEON needs to be run by ecologists for ecologists,” says Collins, who helped to launch NEON in 2000 as an NSF programme manager.

“NEON is once again at a crossroads,” Collins says. “How many more crossroads are there before this is just a demolition derby?”

Nature 565, 276 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00105-0
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