Closer NSF engagement with LTER continues after ASM

Network News Fall 2012, Vol. 25 No. 3
NSF News

At the recent All Scientists Meeting (ASM) in Estes Park, the National Science Foundation (NSF) raised two issues for open discussion. This article is an opportunity to continue the dialogue. We described the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network as dynamic and evolving. Research networks have become common, and vary in scope from developing new research agendas (e.g., research coordination networks) to cross-site data synthesis (e.g., LTER) to thoroughly standardized and uniform data collection across diverse habitats (e.g., NEON, NPN). It is this proliferation of networks, and changing ideas of what research networks are, that prompt our request for an open discussion of LTER as a network.

Some of the impetus for LTER sites to organize as a network came from NSF, with the intent of making LTER data broadly accessible and adding value to site-specific research when cross-site comparisons could yield new insights or address new questions. NSF has provided funds to encourage cross-site activities along with improved data accessibility, and considers both to be review criteria for LTER renewal proposals. The resulting activities have advanced continental-scale research, encouraged new funding opportunities such as NSF's MacroSystems Biology Program, and helped to pave the way for NEON, synthesis centers, Earth Cube and others. Coordinated activities across all LTER sites in the areas of data management, accessibility, and standardized metadata development are extremely valuable.

We have not changed our minds about the value of cross-site activities or of a loosely-organized network of interactions among sites. These are as valued today as they were 10 or 20 years ago. The core data collected at each LTER site, as well as many of the experiments initiated, provide unique opportunities to address new questions at broad spatial scales.

Our concern is that the singularity of purpose and standardization of approaches that often characterize formal observatory networks will spread to LTER, which was encouraged to organize as a network for very different reasons. Cross-site activities are not a mandate. More importantly, sites must not feel compelled to embrace a uniform conceptual framework, approach, or suite of research activities in order to demonstrate network participation or to justify the program. Individual sites were funded on the basis of exciting scientific questions and goals, and these will continue to be the primary criteria that your peers and NSF use in their evaluations. NSF wants you to propose and pursue the most compelling research possible. Network activities may strengthen or complement this research, but cannot replace it. Finding an appropriate balance between site-specific research and cross-site activities may depend on the maturity of the site and the existence of comparable sites or partners.  For some LTER sites, the most compelling and timely questions may require cross-site efforts.

A related discussion is needed to clarify the role of social science in LTER. NSF is responsible for much of the confusion surrounding this issue. We know that a team of LTER scientists worked long and hard on the decadal plan for Integrative Science for Society and the Environment (ISSE), with encouragement and funding from NSF. Increasingly, humans have a major influence on all ecosystems, regardless of their location or isolation. All of the Directorates that contribute to LTER recognize humans as key components of ecosystems. Human influence varies among sites, however, and is more prominent in some than in others. Recognizing this, NSF does not consider the ISSE a mandate that must be used to frame research at every site. It works better at some sites than others, and should be used to enhance site-specific research, not to constrain it. Our encouragement that sites incorporate social science selectively is reinforced by the fact that NSF support for social science research at LTER sites is currently limited.

With respect to these two issues, then, what is it that NSF expects of LTER? We expect you to engage in the very best research possible, make your data easily accessible, and utilize network-level interactions when they increase the likelihood of major, new findings. At the end of the day, it is this research that your peers, and NSF, will evaluate. Let's keep the dialogue open.

By Saran Twombly, Dave Garrison & Matt Kane (NSF)