Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The report endorses the National Science Foundation's concept of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for providing a nationwide network of facilities and infrastructure for ecological and environmental research that is impossible with existing infrastructure. The committee identified six grand challenges in environmental biology - biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, climate change, ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, invasive species and land and habitat use -- that deserves high priority for research and needs to be addressed on a regional or continental scale. However, the report says that NEON needs a refined focus and a more detailed plan for its implementation to ensure the maximization of its contribution to science and to better fit within the purview of Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction funding.

Key Messages

  • An in-depth understanding of the causes and consequences of the six challenges is needed to allow assessment of potential ecosystem responses and to formulate effective environmental policy. Meeting this need would require large-scale experimentation, long-term observation, and scientific synthesis that could be carried out only using a network of nationwide infrastructure and research sites that are optimized for the purpose.
  • NEON would provide opportunities for large-scale environmental research and enable intellectual and scientific development that is impossible with existing infrastructure. However, the effective implementation of NEON and the maximization of its contributions to science and the nation require a refined focus and a more detailed plan for its implementation.
  • NEON, as currently proposed, would be built piecemeal via funding of one or two regional observatories at a time, and each observatory would be managed by a different university or consortium. Such a design and implementation might hinder the integration and the national nature of the network of sites and make it less than optimally effective in facilitating coordinated regional- and continental-scale research.
  • The challenge of educating the next generation of scientists, teachers, and students and of reaching out to the public about environmental science and issues cannot be met casually by individual researchers. Nothing short of an integrated, sequenced education and outreach plan that meets national standards, targets audience needs, and is based on measurable outcomes will answer the leadership and education vision set forth to NSF by the National Science Board.
  • The committee identified six critical environmental challenges that are regional, continental, or global in their extent biodiversity, species composition, and ecosystem functioning; ecological aspects of biogeochemical cycles; ecological implications of climate change; ecology and evolution of infectious diseases; invasive species; and land use and habitat alteration.