Super Committee budget cuts loom large for environmental research
In the vacuum left by the U.S. Congress' inability/unwillingness to pass climate change legislation, and in light of a looming budgetary squeeze for all federal agencies, including/especially those researching and developing systems to the environment and natural resources, one might think that any federal money for a program that positions climate change impacts as its core focus would have totally dried up. But it hasn't.
At least not yet.
A massive project to collect data from twenty "eco-climatic domains"(1) representing the various U.S. ecosystems cleared its final hurdle recently when the National Science Foundation approved $434 million over five years to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) to gather data in the U.S. on the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity.
NEON, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit, will oversee the construction of a network of scientific stations that collect, synthesize and analyze data in the United States from 500 categories of samples found in soil, air, water, plants and animals. Construction on stations in Colorado and New England will take place in the next 12 months funded by the $12.5 million guaranteed in the fiscal year budget.
But the program requires being built from scratch. And that means it is going to take five years to build out the network and many more years to even begin making sense of the mountains of "continental-scale" data that collected.
Some critics charge, however, that once the network is built out it is not entirely clear how the data will be used or whether anything can be done with it. At least not yet. An editorial in the journal Nature, although written in support of the effort, highlighted both the technical as well as the social and institutional difficulties of such a large undertaking.
In short, this project, like all other large-scale scientific undertakings, is going to take time.
And facing certain cuts by the special "Super Committee" charged with slashing the U.S. budget, the last thing federal research agencies have is time.
(1) The map of the U.S.' eco-regions that NEON has developed doesn't have all the same borders as the one drawn by John Wesley Powell in the late 1800s, but the principal is the same: divide the country into smaller units physically defined by natural borders like watersheds, basins and mountain ranges.
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