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A national facility for ecological research
The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a major initiative proposed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a national platform for integrated studies on natural processes at all spatial scales, time scales, and levels of biological organization. NEON will provide the resources and infrastructure for fundamental biological research that will enhance our understanding of the natural world, improve our ability to predict the consequences of natural and anthropogenic events, and inform our environmental decision-makers.
As we deepen our appreciation of the degree to which humans depend on the planet's ecosystems, understanding the impacts of changes such as declining biodiversity, global climate fluctuations, and species invasions becomes critical to our societal well being. NEON, a collection of field observatories linked via high-capacity communication systems, will provide a mechanism for improving our understanding of such impacts and thus can serve as a key tool for meeting environmental challenges. Because NEON will monitor biological diversity, it could well become an early detector of accidental or intentional biological invasions, as well as local and national extinction events. NEON is also intended to serve as an important educational resource — from grade school through graduate school — by integrating research and educational initiatives.
The ecological community is currently developing plans for NEON. Scientists agree that to further our understanding of ecological processes, we need to understand them in the context of their small and large scale influences. To date, there has been strong support for NEON to pursue research on the following six interacting ecological themes: the impact of biogeochemical cycles on ecological systems, land use and habitat alteration; ecology and evolution of infectious diseases; invasive species; biodiversity, species composition, and ecosystem functioning; and ecological implications of climate change and its impact on biological organisms.
The NEON concept continues to evolve. The scientific community is engaged in activities to articulate NEON's science plan and to design its infrastructure. Soon, a coordinating consortium will be established to provide scientific leadership to the NEON enterprise. Initially, this consortium will take the lead role in coordinating further development of NEON and creation of specific implementation plans. Ultimately, the consortium will be responsible for administration, community participation, and governance. A recent solicitation from the Science Foundation calls for proposals to create this NEON Coordinating Consortium (NCC).
The design of NEON will reflect the need to address currently intractable ecological questions by providing synchronized and standardized environmental data over large spatial and temporal scales. Furthermore, integrating data from all over the country and making it widely available is expected to aid in predictive modeling of biological systems, resource management, and environmental decision-making.
NEON observatories will be the on-the-ground element in the research platform, consisting of diverse facilities, such as field stations, government research sites, museums, and universities. NEON observatories will deploy standardized instruments to collect comprehensive field data which will be publicly disseminated though robust data management infrastructure. In addition, laboratory equipment will be available for biological, chemical, and physical analyses. By connecting diverse disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, information technology, and the biological sciences, NEON will foster the application of new technologies to the study of environmental systems.