MacroSystems Biology and Early NEON Science

What do a fungal disease, lake sediments, and weather radar have in common?

They are all components of research projects funded by the NSF Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science Program (MSB). (You can find a list of active awards here.)

Last week, the NSF headquarters served as the gathering place for a meeting of Principal Investigators (PIs) and other researchers working on MSB projects from across the country. We wanted to share with you a little bit more about this unique program in the NSF BIO portfolio and some of the outcomes of the meeting.

Dr. Olds and Dr. Waring are standing in a meeting room in front of a wall with Dr. Warings scientific poster hanging on it. There are other posters in the background.
The NSF’s Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, speaks with MacroSystems Biology researcher Dr. Kristen Waring.

About the Program

Originally just called “Macrosystems Biology,” the Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science program is an NSF BIO funding competition that made its first round of awards in FY 2011. The next proposal due date is coming up later this month (NSF 16-521). The purpose of the program is to support “proposals that will develop new conceptual frameworks, empirical studies, and modeling that are applicable for studying the biosphere at regional to continental scales and developing the ability to forecast future change.”

As stated in the introduction to the program solicitation:

“The biosphere has changed more in the past 50 years than during any time in human history. Climate change, land use change, and the introduction of invasive species collectively affect living systems by altering the fundamental relationships between life and the non-living environment that sustains it. Many of the changes challenge our understanding of how the biosphere works – how the ecological systems on which we depend will respond to changes in climate, land use, biodiversity, and a host of related environmental factors. Our current understanding of the biosphere is largely based on knowledge derived either from small plot research or from satellite-scale remote sensing. However, the basic scientific knowledge needed to understand the biosphere at regional to continental and annual to decadal scales, to quantify the strong and weak forces regulating the biosphere, and to predict the consequences of climate and land use change and invasive species on living systems is difficult to extrapolate from studies conducted at local or global scales.”

As the MSB program has taken off, NSF BIO has also been supporting the development, construction, and operation of NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network. Now managed by Battelle, and with construction anticipated to conclude in 2018, NEON is a nation-wide network of sensors, sampling, and other scientific resources. The observatory network is designed to enable the research community to ask and address their own questions on a regional to continental scale around the environmental challenges identified as relevant to understanding the effects of climate change, land-use change and invasive species patterns on the biosphere. NEON will provide the data needed to vastly expand our knowledge of regional and continental scale ecology; when complete, standardized data from 81 field sites placed across the entire U.S. (incl. Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) will be freely available via an online data portal. Some data products are already available to the research community.

The research challenges of Macrosystems Biology go hand-in-hand with the opportunities and capacities generated by NEON infrastructure and data products. And thus, the MSB program has grown to explicitly encourage, but not exclusively require, research capitalizing on NEON resources.

Meeting Synopsis

The exciting outcomes and future plans of the MSB projects were on display at a Principal Investigators (PI) community meeting held over two days at NSF headquarters. This meeting was organized by the PIs and supported by the NSF BIO Division of Biological Infrastructure (home of NEON program management) and Division of Emerging Frontiers (home of the MSB program).

The meeting brought together representatives from most current MSB projects. While project leaders were in abundance, the meeting also placed a special emphasis on participation by early career researchers: faculty, post-docs, and graduate students.

Photo of a meeting room with scientific posters hanging on the walls. About a dozen researchers are clustered around the posters talking with one another about their research.
The morning poster session allowed investigators to showcase their exciting outcomes and future plans for research.

The meeting kicked off on Thursday, September 29, with back-to-back poster sessions which provided time for all attendees to hear from other project representatives about their latest work. In the first round, the PIs presented their research. In the second round, the students and post-docs took the lead. The posters showcased investigators’ progress-to-date and future plans for MSB and early NEON science projects and featured outcomes from projects such as:

  • Developing models based on weather, climate, and population dynamics to predict the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease decimating North American bats.
  • Pulling the signals of flying birds from the “noise” in weather radar network data, and generating a new observational tool for understanding migrations on a large scale.
  • Testing the limits of the biosphere components of major climate models over millennia scales, then fusing modern and paleo-ecology data, such as that found in tree rings and pollen preserved beneath lake beds, to create more robust representations.
  • Piloting a training approach for graduate students to develop first-hand experience in big-scale science through intensive fellowships that focus on team-science skills, data skills (access, sharing, wrangling and management) and synthesis projects that benefit a broad research community.
Dr. Cotton and a colleague stand in front of a scientific poster titled Mice-o-scapes: Using isotopes to understand the effect of climate and landscape change on small mammal ecology over the past 100 years.
Principal Investigator Dr. Jennifer Cotton describes her work on isotopic analysis during the poster session.

In addition to the project-specific presentations, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning the attendees engaged in discussions about some major themes that cut across and unite the field of Macrosystems Biology, for example:

  • Putting theory developed at small scales to the test at much larger scales.
  • Developing mathematical models of complex biological processes over large spatial and temporal scales.
  • Addressing the challenges of interdisciplinary teamwork and data management, and training the next generation of researchers to do so effectively.
  • Working to integrate big data, theory, models, and experiments to make useful predictions (useful to scientists, resource managers, and the public).
A group of eight researchers, 5 men and 3 women, sit in chairs arranged in a circle in front of a wall displaying 5 scientific posters.
Small group discussions allowed the principal investigators to share and compare experiences working on large-scale projects.

To learn more about this program visit the NSF Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science program summary page.

And if you missed it, we shared some of the researchers’ work on BIO’s Twitter account with the hashtags #MSB and #NEON: