Summary report of the mid-term review of the Network Office

Network News Spring 2012, Vol. 25 No. 2
NSF review panel praises LNO's work and offers suggestions for greater success.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) review team has praised the LTER Network Office (LNO) for its efforts promoting network science, for progress on the Network Information System, for its strong relationship with site information managers, and for creating a new web presence.  The NSF mid-term review of LNO took place May 29-30, 2012.  A 7-person team, chaired by former LTER Program Director Nancy Huntly and with NSF's Saran Twombly and Peter McCartney as observers, spent two days in Albuquerque reviewing all aspects of LNO operations. 

In addition to reviewing LNO annual reports, the Operational Plan, and the LTER Strategic and Implementation Plan, the review team heard presentations from senior LNO staff as well as LTER Chair Scott Collins, and spoke with several site Principal Investigators and Information Managers by phone.   Members of the review team were experts in the areas of information management, computer science, communication and outreach, project management, and ecology. 

It may not be widely known that the LNO is reviewed at mid-term just like each of the 26 sites.  Reviewing the LNO is a bit more complicated since NSF provides funding through two cooperative agreements with overlapping schedules and goals.  Some LNO tasks such as software development and information management require specific technical expertise on the review panel.  In addition, the LNO must not only meet the expectations of NSF, as described in our cooperative agreements and the LNO Operational Plan, but we also are expected to respond to the needs of the LTER Network as defined by the Executive Board and the LTER Strategic and Implementation Plan (SIP).  Fortunately, in most cases the goals of the various defining documents converge on a set of activities that meets everyone’s expectations.

In the recent evaluation, the review team analyzed activities funded under both cooperative agreements and prepared a joint report, which was released by NSF on June 29.  The report commended the LNO on its accomplishments over the first three years of funding and made several positive suggestions on how to assure continued success during the next three years.  Below I summarize the findings of the report and briefly describe how the LNO will respond to each of the recommendations.

The review team praised the LNO for accomplishments in four areas:

  • Effective promotion of Network cohesion and science synthesis through logistical support for meetings.  The LNO plans to continue and if possible expand support for synthesis working groups. 
  • Moving forward with development of the NIS (Network Information System) including PASTA (Provenance Aware Synthesis Tracking Architecture).  LNO software developers are working to finish a preview of the PASTA framework for the NIS in time for the All Scientists Meeting.  We will demonstrate functionality of PASTA through a working group for  users, a continuously running demonstration of the NIS, and a poster that will allow discussion and feedback. 
  • Development of strong collaborative relationships with the LTER information management (IM) community.  The LNO plans to continue its support of IM working groups, training activities, tool development, and technical support over the next three years.
  • Development of an improved web presence.  The new LTER web presence will be launched at the ASM.

Six recommendations focused on improving the likelihood of success in meeting goals for the next three years.  These were:

  • NIS/PASTA deployment timeline – that LNO develops a specific, and near-term, timeline for releasing a production version of the NIS and PASTA for use.  We have already implemented this recommendation and are revising the development timeline to release a production version of PASTA at its current level of functionality.  We are targeting the end of this year to complete a version of PASTA that will provide data ingestion and retrieval capabilities.
  • Coordination of synthesis with the NIS – that LNO reprioritizes its efforts to emphasize proactive engagement of LTER scientists in development and use of the NIS for synthesis.  The LNO will engage LTER working groups focusing on synthesis and database development to identify scientific priorities for populating the NIS with site data.
  • Broadening communication – that LNO identifies and implements a small and strategic set of activities to broaden the audiences it serves and to improve communications within the LTER community.  The LNO had already focused on several of the communication objectives of the SIP, including the implementation of an electronic newsletter and an improved web presence.  We will continue to emphasize increased communication within the LTER community and with the broader ecological community.
  • Basic core IT service – that LNO addresses several unmet needs for basic cyberinfrastructure and information technology (IT) support.  The LNO will redirect resources to address specific needs for support, including better access to administrative functions through web services and expanded access to technical support for IM issues related to the NIS. 
  • Metrics for assessment and evaluation – that LNO develops specific substantive goals and metrics with which to evaluate its progress and effectiveness.  In addition to the assessment and evaluation efforts already undertaken by LNO, we will seek partners to help devise a broader range of metrics for assessment. 
  • Advisory input – that LNO develops an external advisory structure.  The LNO will address this recommendation through the existing LTER National Advisory Board and by requesting the addition of external scientists to the Network Information System Advisory Committee (NISAC).

The LNO would like to thank the members of the review team (Randy Butler, Bob Groman, Nancy Huntly, Louise Mead, Jim Myers, Michael Piasecki, and Brenda Shears) for their time and effort in providing a well thought out and helpful series of recommendations that focus on improved service to the LTER Network.  We also appreciate the kind words of the committee regarding our progress towards the goals of our cooperative agreements.  We look forward to the improvements that will result from implementing their recommendations.