Tag Archives: NEON

Corruption uncovered in federal environmental project

Government marches on! A federal environmental project costing almost a half billion dollars is over budget and has had its management company removed over accusations of accounting irregularities.

During its five-year construction phase, NEON has encountered a series of high-profile problems that have raised concerns about the programme, which is funded entirely by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). In June 2015, the network came under fire from the NSF and Congress after NEON, Inc. — the non-profit organization that manages the project — reported that it was running $80 million over budget. Amid revelations that the company had spent federal money on parties, Congress levied charges of mismanagement and convened hearings with officials from NEON and the NSF. Events came to a climax in December, when the NSF decided to take NEON, Inc. off the project, citing a lack of confidence in the company after years of delays and questions about accounting irregularities.

The agency will now seek another operator to complete construction and take over the project’s management. One of the toughest tasks will be winning the support of ecologists; some researchers felt alienated during the project’s planning phase and have been critical of the way the observatory network is turning out. [emphasis mine]

The accounting irregularities included “$25,000 for a party and $3,000 for T-shirts.”

I highlight the last sentence because this gigantic federal project not only has financial and corruption issues, its big governmental design has less to do with science research and more to do with pork and getting federal dollars.

Scott Collins, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was the first NSF [National Science Foundation] program director for NEON back in 2000. Collins says that the idea for a large ecological observatory sprang from NSF staff who were seeking ways for biologists to get a slice of the agency’s big-science money: the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction budget. “That put us on a very different footing from the start because this was not something that the community and vocal ecologists had wanted,” Collins says. [emphasis mine]

Based on reading the entire article, I would recommend that Congress end the entire project. The science produced will be questionable and not worth the money. Considering the federal deficit it makes no sense to spend money foolishly right now.

NSF accused of misuse of funds in giant ecological project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a contractor have been accused by both an audit and by Congress of a significant misuse of funds in a major ecological monitoring project costing almost a half a billion dollars.

With a construction budget of $433.7 million, NEON is planned to consist of 106 sites across the United States. Arrays of sensors at each site will monitor climate change and human impacts for 30 years, building an unprecedented continental-scale data set. Although some initially doubted its merits, the allure of big-data ecology eventually won over most scientists.

But a 2011 audit of the project’s proposed construction budget stalled three times when, according to the independent Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), NEON’s accounting proved so poor that the review could not be completed. Eventually, DCAA issued an adverse ruling, concluding that nearly 36% of NEON’s budget proposal was questionable or undocumented.

When the NSF green-lit the project, the agency’s inspector-general ordered the audit released on 24 November, which found unallowable expenses including a $25,000 winter holiday party, $11,000 to provide coffee for employees, $3,000 for board-of-directors dinners that included alcohol, $3,000 for t-shirts and other clothes, $83,000 for “business development” and $112,000 for lobbying.

Republican members of Congress have since been attacking NSF for this lax management. And though the amount of funds apparently misused does not seem very large compared to the size of the entire contract, I am willing to bet that this audit only uncovered a tiny portion of the misuse. Based on the recent behavior of federal agencies, I would expect this to only be an indicator of much worst abuse that is still buried behind stone-walling.

A side note: Remember how only a few weeks ago the NSF head was claiming that a shortage of funds was the reason they were unable to cure ebola. What really happened was that they were too busy spending money having parties to do their job.