Richard Leonard is a corporate turnaround artist. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, is betting on him to turn around its troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Last summer, faced with a projected $80 million cost overrun and a year’s delay in the scheduled 2016 completion, NSF decided to shrink the number of NEON sites from more than 100 to 81 and reduce the scope of the project. That was the final straw in a series of missteps that sealed the fate of the previous contractor, NEON Inc., which was created for the purpose of building and running the observatories.
NSF has given Battelle until mid-June to submit a detailed plan for managing NEON, but Leonard says there won’t be any major surprises. “I do not expect to see any descoping beyond what has already been announced,” Leonard says, “and we’re looking for completion by the end of 2017.”
In the meantime, Leonard has begun to restructure the internal organization—some 300 people based in Boulder and another 150 to 200 in the field—and repair NEON’s tattered relationship with the ecological community. The latter has been a running sore for the project, leading to a revolving door of top scientists and the near-resignation of its top advisory panel. “We’ve heard loud and clear from scientists,” he says. “We’ve got a bridge to build there.”