The National Science Foundation this week inched closer to approving what may be the world's largest environmental monitoring facility. The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) also has a new, tentative price tag: $384 million. That's nearly four times what NSF officials estimated it would cost when they conceived of the network 10 years ago.
NEON bills itself  as "a continental-scale ecological observation platform for understanding and forecasting the impacts of climate change, land use change, and invasive species on ecology." It will be used to monitor 20 ecologically different regions of the country with stationary, mobile, and relocatible sensors, supplemented by data from planes and computer networks . "The idea is to be able to track events that we expect will be happening continually, like smoke from wildfires or the progress of an invasive species," explains Alan Covich, an ecologist at the University of Georgia, Athens. Covich headed the external NSF panel that endorsed the project this week after visiting NEON's prototype site outside Boulder, Colorado, and reviewing more than 3000 pages of documents. "What they've done already is pretty impressive."
NSF has spent $45 million on the project since former NSF director Rita Colwell hatched the idea in 1999 as a $100 million initiative, but numerous redesigns have slowed its progress. This week's nod takes it one step closer to being a line item in NSF's construction budget. NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, has already given its preliminary approval, but NSF Director Arden Bement pulled it from his lineup last year  after deciding that project officials needed to come up with firmer cost numbers and a more solid long-range management plan.
Elizabeth Blood, the NSF program director who oversees the project, says the new price tag is not necessarily final but that it reflects "the current cost … based on a very rigorous design process." The number also doesn't include the 30-year lifetime cost of operating the observatories once construction, estimated to take 5 years, is finished. NSF hopes to complete a final design review later this year and seek board approval in the spring of 2010.