Problems Surrounding NSF’s NEON Project Subject of House Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
25 September 2015


Members of the House Science Committee reviewing problems affecting the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project appeared satisfied with efforts being made by officials to correct past mistakes and to rescope the project. Two senior officials appeared before the Research and Technology Subcommittee and the Oversight Subcommittee on September 18.

NSF has been the subject of increased scrutiny by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in recent years. While subcommittee members expressed concern about a projected $80 million overrun and eighteen month delay in finishing NEON, criticism was balanced, bipartisan, and generally low-key.

Jim Olds, Assistant Director of NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences described NEON in his written testimony as follows:

NEON is a one-of-a-kind continental-scale research instrument consisting of a geographically-distributed complex cyber-enabled network of sensors and biological instruments that will, among other advances, use airborne remote sensing data to improve our fundamental understanding of biology, emerging disease, water use, invasive species, and agricultural, forestry, and urban land-use.

NEON is funded through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. The $433 million network called for the placement of cutting-edge instrumentation at 82 sites throughout the United States from Barrow, Alaska to Puerto Rico to Hawaii. NEON is one of three projects under construction through this account, which has previously funded projects such as the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory. NSF requested $80.6 million in FY 2016 to complete NEON’s construction. House and Senate appropriators provided full funding for the MREFC request, which includes funding for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Additional information on NEON is available here and here.

Joining Olds at the witness table was James Collins, Chairman of the Board of NEON, Inc. Both Olds and Collins admitted that mistakes in project management led to a recent decision to rescope NEON, which will result in less instrumentation than first envisioned. The number of sites will be reduced from 96 to 81. Collins assured subcommittee members that “The essential ‘core’ NEON sites – twenty scientific anchorpoints that span the continent – all remain part of the national site constellation.” “Despite recent changes to the project, NEON’s highlevel science requirements have not and will not be compromised,” he said.

Olds testified that “NSF began to have concerns with the project as early as January 2013,” describing schedule slippage in production and procurement and the lack of development in other parts of the project. He described various oversight procedures that were established to identify and correct these problems. In response to mounting problems, an emergency meeting was convened earlier this year, a warning letter issued, and site visits made. In mid-June officials concluded that NEON was $80 million over its projected budget with its expected completion delayed by up to eighteen months. NSF has had a “no cost overrun” policy in place since FY 2009. As a result, a decision was made to reduce NEON’s scope.

Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) delivered a prepared opening statement that aptly characterized the hearing’s tenor and approach:

For its part, the NSF finally seems to be taking steps to more closely manage and take control over the costs of NEON. I am pleased that at the Committee’s urging, the Foundation also has begun to evaluate how it can better manage major research facilities in the future. But the NSF must now scale back the scope of NEON to keep it under budget, which means less science for the same price tag. This week the IG [Inspector General] recommended some additional steps that the NSF could take immediately to ensure it has the financial and project information it needs to oversee NEON. I hope the Foundation will take a close look at those recommendations.

The NSF, as well as its grantees and contractors, need to be held accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. I hope today’s hearing will give the Committee a better understanding of the missteps that have lead NEON to this point. And I hope it will lead to a solution, which includes the possibility of legislative action, so that the mismanagement of taxpayer funds will not continue.

After concluding his prepared remarks, Smith added that most of NEON’s problems occurred before NSF Director France Cordova came to the foundation, and that she is aware of the situation.

Of note, there was no discussion during the hearing about “the possibility of legislative action” that Smith mentioned in his statement.

NEON is undergoing a series of reviews. Looking ahead, Olds testified that:

By December 1, NSF will have enough information to be able to make a determination as to whether or not NEON Inc. has made sufficient improvement to successfully complete construction of the NEON project. NSF is considering how it will undertake external review of the information received, including an independent review of the revised total project cost and schedule. If it is determined that NEON Inc. is not capable of completing construction, NSF will take the necessary actions to pursue alternative management options.