, Volume 177, Issue 4, pp 925–934 | Cite as

Big questions, big science: meeting the challenges of global ecology

  • David SchimelEmail author
  • Michael Keller
Special Topic: Coordinated approaches to global change research


Ecologists are increasingly tackling questions that require significant infrastucture, large experiments, networks of observations, and complex data and computation. Key hypotheses in ecology increasingly require more investment, and larger data sets to be tested than can be collected by a single investigator’s or s group of investigator’s labs, sustained for longer than a typical grant. Large-scale projects are expensive, so their scientific return on the investment has to justify the opportunity cost-the science foregone because resources were expended on a large project rather than supporting a number of individual projects. In addition, their management must be accountable and efficient in the use of significant resources, requiring the use of formal systems engineering and project management to mitigate risk of failure. Mapping the scientific method into formal project management requires both scientists able to work in the context, and a project implementation team sensitive to the unique requirements of ecology. Sponsoring agencies, under pressure from external and internal forces, experience many pressures that push them towards counterproductive project management but a scientific community aware and experienced in large project science can mitigate these tendencies. For big ecology to result in great science, ecologists must become informed, aware and engaged in the advocacy and governance of large ecological projects.


Project management Systems engineering National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) 



We offer these insights to our Israeli colleagues as they contemplate a national network, the occasion for this special issue and to the broader community. We dedicate this to the dedicated community of NEON staff members, advisory group members and alumni. The research carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, was under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Copyright 2014 California Institute of Technology. We thank all the colleagues, too many to mention, through whose efforts over many years, many projects have been not only spectacular scientifically but personally rewarding for us.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Jet Propulsion LabCalifornia Institute of TechnologyPasadenaUSA
  2. 2.USDA Forest ServiceInternational Institute of Tropical ForestrySan JuanUSA
  3. 3.EMBRAPA Satellite MonitoringCampinasBrazil

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