The most ambitious U.S. effort to assess environmental change on a continental scale won final approval yesterday from the oversight body of the National Science Foundation (NSF). More than a decade in the making, the $434 million National Ecological Observatory Network  (NEON) will establish 20 permanent monitoring stations to collect climate, environmental, and biological data on an ongoing basis. NEON will also include  40 temporary terrestrial sites and 46 aquatic sites.
"For the merit review process, this was the high bar," says David Schimel, CEO of NEON Inc., a nonprofit consortium that will build the network. Given that ecologists have never tried to do such a large-scale project, Schimel says "it's an honor" to get this far.
Yesterday's action by the National Science Board authorizes the NSF director to award NEON Inc. a 5-year contract to construct the observatory, contingent upon funding from Congress and compliance with the Endangered Species Act. NSF has requested $20 million in its 2011 budget to begin construction. Schimel says the environmental assessments were completed in January and all the permits are in place for the first few sites.