The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is the United States’ first continental-scale ecological observatory designed to collect long-term ecological data to better understand how U.S. ecosystems are changing. Battelle has managed NEON for the National Science Foundation since 2016, initially completing the construction of its infrastructure and now operating the complex program.
Data collection occurs across 81 terrestrial and freshwater aquatic field sites, representing the diversity of climates and terrain across the nation. Millions of measurements and thousands of samples are gathered each year. Hundreds of data products are free and open to all, available right from the NEON Data Portal.
Providing years—eventually 30 years or more—of standardized measurements across numerous locations is a major benefit to the ecological research community. The rigor of the data collection methodology means researchers can efficiently explore numerous potential research questions without ever going into the field themselves and have confidence in the quality of the data.
While delivering consistent, open-access ecological data is the core mission of NEON, this data can’t single-handedly address all proposed research questions. That’s where the NEON Assignable Assets program comes in. The program makes certain components of NEON’s infrastructure available to the research community to support their own research activities. The robust infrastructure across the country offers the research community significant flexibility.
“The standard data NEON collects is massive. It’s an incredibly robust baseline,” said Mike SanClements, Manager in the Research Infrastructure business line. “Assignable Assets is a powerful magnifier. Adding one or two specific measurements to build on our core data expands the potential of science. It opens up another layer. I think that combination is the most powerful part of NEON.”
A broad range of research support is available through the Assignable Assets program, including:
- Sensor infrastructure – NEON has permanent physical infrastructure installed at field sites across the country. Investigators can request to have a new sensor or piece of equipment installed at a NEON site to collect data, whether to collect an entirely new measurement or compare a methodology to a similar NEON sensor.
- Observational sampling – Our technicians in the field are a critical component of NEON’s infrastructure. Investigators may request that field teams collect defined observational data aligned to their research goals or collect physical samples to be sent for their own analysis.
- Field site coordination – NEON has existing relationships with the owners of the land where NEON field sites are located. External researchers can collaborate with NEON Domain teams, and we can facilitate researchers obtaining their own permits to conduct research at or near NEON sites.
- Airborne Observation Platform – NEON operates two aircraft outfitted with sophisticated remote sensing equipment that fly over NEON sites on a set schedule. Researchers can request for these aircraft to fly over NEON sites or other locations of interest to collect data outside of NEON’s flight schedule.
- Mobile Deployment Platforms – NEON has several self-contained mobile sensor arrays that can be used to collect meteorological, soil and surface water data—basically smaller-scale versions of the large permanent towers at field sites. Researchers can request for these mobile units to be deployed to areas of interest, bringing NEON’s standardized measurements to new locations.
“We’ll do pretty much anything you can dream up, as long as it doesn’t interfere with NEON’s mission, sampling or data collection, and the researcher has funding,” said Rommel Zulueta, who serves as the program lead for NEON’s Assignable Assets.
While the majority of Assignable Assets users are university researchers, anyone who has research interests that could benefit from NEON infrastructure and expertise, including government agencies, non-profit organizations and private industry, can apply. Services are provided on a cost-recoverable basis, so applicants just cover the costs of the services they use and there is no financial impact to Battelle or the National Science Foundation.
Once an application is submitted, the NEON science, engineering and field operations teams iterate with the investigator to determine how NEON can help them achieve their research goals. NEON team members can help streamline the idea to make it work within their available funding, expand the idea to include more data points or locations to enhance their research, connect the investigator with existing NEON data that may compliment their research, or modify their idea to work within the constraints of the site. Of the hundreds of requests submitted in the program’s lifetime, only one has been turned down because there just wasn’t a way to make it work.
NEON Assignable Assets provides incredible efficiency benefits that enables more environmental and ecological research to be done at less cost. For example, a graduate student used the program to collect litter samples. For little cost, the student was able to prepare and ship litter collection bags to several NEON sites, and technicians were able to collect the desired samples alongside their typical work. Without the NEON teams already dispersed across the country, this research would have been prohibitively expensive and time consuming.
The program has also been used to deploy an Airborne Observation Platform for post-wildfire research and a Mobile Deployment Platform to a controlled burn. Developing these complex instrument systems for a single use simply wouldn’t have been feasible. Leveraging NEON’s reusable infrastructure and established protocols made this important research possible.
“It allows for rapid innovation and deployment to address the most timely scientific questions,” said Rommel.
If you have an idea or project that could benefit from NEON infrastructure or subject matter expertise, reach out to Rommel or Mike or send an email to Assignable Assets Requests.