David Schimel has a reputation among his colleagues for his quick-witted turns of phrase. “Our telescope points everywhere at once” is one example of his quirky sense of humour. Phrases such as this — an allusion to how the Hubble telescope compares with the National Ecological Observatory Network's (NEON's) planned array of numerous sensors — are now becoming part of the fabric of the fledgling network, headquartered in Washington DC. Last November, Schimel was appointed as chief executive of the network, which will see a set of sensors and facilities monitor ecosystems throughout the United States. (See CV)

This might sound like a curious post for a former linguistics student, but Schimel's brush with ecology — when he enrolled in a course to prepare for backpacking and camping trips — began a romance with natural science. He went on to major in biology and later added a degree in mathematics, once he realized that a quantitative approach was important to his work. After two years at the Marine Biological Laboratory's Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a PhD on grasslands at Colorado State University, Schimel joined the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, in 1992.

It was during an almost six-year hiatus from NCAR, at the Max Planck Society in Germany and the International Ecology Institute, that Schimel gained a deeper understanding of the culture of European ecology, which includes lots of collaborative projects involving networks of sites, a hallmark of NEON. “We will have to find a way to emphasize people's individual creativity and mix it with collaborative building of the network,” says Schimel.

NEON is tentatively scheduled to be operational by 2013, and will process data from 20 stations throughout the United States. One of the instruments at its disposal, for example, will be a 10-metre tower to measure carbon dioxide flux, detect nitrogen oxides and record leaf wetness.

But NEON has been criticized by some as being poorly designed and not worth the expense (see Nature 444, 420–421; 2006). Schimel says the scientific community will assess NEON's usefulness by, for example, how well the project monitors land use, the presence of invasive species, and ecosystems' response to natural and human-induced climate changes. Despite the scepticism, Schimel remains excited about the project's incredible potential and is eager to listen to the science community to determine how best to prioritize NEON's activities.