Congress asks NSF to explain glitches in NEON project under construction

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After looking at the performance characteristics of where the project needed to be headed as we moved from construction to operations, the board decided that a new CEO was the way to make that happen.”NEON has followed a rocky path since it was first proposed by NSF in 2000. Although the ecology community welcomes the additional capacity, many scientists have found fault with NEON’s top-down, standardized approach to designing the project and the perception that science has taken a back seat to logistics since construction began in 2010.Lea, a forestry professor turned university administrator, inherited those problems when he became CEO in March 2012. Although Collins praised Lea for his dedication to moving NEON forward, Collins’s description of the skills his successor should possess is an implicit criticism of Lea’s management style. “The CEO has to set a tone in which people feel they are being treated well and their contributions are valued, and that their well-being is important to the organization,” Collins told ScienceInsider.Lea has been replaced on an interim basis by Eugene (Gene) Kelly, a soil scientist who only last month was named chief visiting scientist. Kelly is on leave from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, where he has been a faculty member since 1989 and department chair for the past 4 years.Kelly told ScienceInsider last month that he was joining NEON “to be a bridge to the scientific community … and ensure that science is in the forefront” of all of NEON’s activities. Kelly declined to comment this week on his new assignment as temporary CEO, but Collins says that Kelly volunteered to take on the position along with his duties as the project’s top scientist.“He’s a team player who cares a lot about the corporation,” Collins says. “He’s a very humane individual, and he’s also a very good scientist.”Collins says he hopes the board will create a search committee at its next meeting in early October and that his goal is to hire a new CEO “within 3 to 6 months.” That process is certain to be a topic of Friday’s hearing by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, entitled NEON Warning Signs. The panel has asked Collins and James Olds, head of NSF’s biology directorate, to discuss NEON’s progress, NSF’s oversight of the project, and “the capability of NEON Inc.’s leadership to continue managing the project.”center_img Email Firing the CEO is a time-honored step designed to improve the performance of a slumping company. It doesn’t always work. But as wags like to point out, it’s a lot easier to do that than to fire all the employees.Last week, the board of directors for the National Ecological Observatory Network, Inc. (NEON) took that route by pushing out NEON CEO Russell Lea and launching a search for his successor. It’s the board’s first public reaction to last month’s decision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to reduce the scope of the $434 million network now under construction at dozens of sites across the country. NSF made the drastic move, which included eliminating sites and lopping off instruments, in hopes of keeping the troubled project on schedule and within budget.On Friday, a congressional panel will grill NEON and NSF officials on whether the observatory can still achieve its goals of measuring climate change, land use trends, and invasive species for decades on a continental scale once construction is completed in 2017 and all the data are flowing.last_img read more