Scientific tourism

2007-03-02

in Daily updates, Science, The outdoors, Travel

Pembroke College, Oxford

During the last little while, I have become aware of a group called the Earthwatch Institute which has an interesting approach to participating in environmental research and the promotion of sustainability. Since 1971, they have linked more than 80,000 volunteers to more than 2,500 different research projects. The volunteers contribute both financially and through their labour, in exchange for which they get to see some amazing places, meet and work with scientists, and generally gain a better understanding of the world. While you have to wonder how helpful non-specialists could actually be during such a project, it does sound like it would be fascinating.

If you have always envied the people zipping around on helicopters or piloting ships through Antarctic waters, this might be your only opportunity, short of becoming a research scientist. Right now, they are organizing expeditions to Alaskan glaciers, the Amazon river basin, coral reefs in the Bahamas, and a number of other places besides. They seem to cost about $2000-3000, not including travel to the location in question.

For those without scientific training to go on such expeditions may be a bit touristic, but I can see how it could contribute valuable resources to projects – particularly those involving scenic places and photogenic animals.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate D March 2, 2007 at 8:48 pm

I highly recommend to do at least one internship during your lifetime. We run a intern program out of our field station and have actually had people from Earthwatch. Having any kind of assistance during research is such a help, not to mention it our case it helps fund the research (Sometimes it wouldn’t be possible wihout the interns). Most of the interns we have had contributed in some way: helping raise spirits around camp (which is a big one for researchers stuck in the field often working straight through three to four months), insights or associated knowledge and just plain grunt work. It is such a help to not have to worry about recording data, allowing the scientists to get a better perspective on both the short term day-to-day results, but also the bigger picture. Although it may seem like field work is mostly fun and adevnture, which it can be, it is also a lot of work and not an easy life overall. As for it seeming touristy, it is a lot cheaper means of exploring an area and getting to know the locals than one could do actually traveling.

Milan March 2, 2007 at 8:54 pm

Kate,

I was hoping you would comment. The Earthwatch expeditions sound like amazing adventures, and I would love to do one.

Anon @ Wadh March 3, 2007 at 4:20 pm

Where was today’s photo taken?

Milan March 3, 2007 at 4:47 pm

That is the chapel at Pembroke College. The porters encouraged me to have a look, and I am quite glad that I did.

Also notable about this image is how nicely the Curves tool in Photoshop improved it. It really goes to show the extent to which underexposure of some areas is a far lesser problem in a digital image than overexposure is.

Antonia March 5, 2007 at 9:44 am

Earthwatch also do one-day or shorter things in the UK, including badger watching in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. These are obviously far cheaper. There are a number of European projects but they don’t just do wildlife – archaeology and anthropology including (at one time) an expedition to Ankgor Watt and going to Russia to gathering Russian folktales or songs.

There is a danger of overglamourizing this in your post – often accommodation (while dolphin-checking on a ship) leaves a lot to be desired and you may not see the creature that excites you (if you go on one of the panther projects, for example, you are extremely unlikely to see one). However, accommodation in remote sites is often with villagers in their homes, which can give a unique perspective on rural Africa or Asia.

One of the conditions of Earthwatch projects is that at least one local (to the area the research is being done in) scientist is involved.

Research proposals seeking funding are received from university academics (several of whom I have met), and then peer reviewed at Earthwatch for suitability for using the untrained volunteer system before funding itself is considered. One of the reasons the organisation is not heard of much is that the research papers it finances come out of the university or other research body the academic works for: Earthwatch is not necessarily ever credited as a funding contributer.

Some projects it funds on a repeat basis, including one on songbird migration from Europe to Africa, which revealed how vital the watering/stop-off points by Jerusalem are to some species. Those sites were zoned for construction and I don’t know whether they are still under threat.

Volunteers have to pay for their own flights (with very rare exceptions) in addition to the costs of going on the project.

When I did voluntary work at their offices, I was very impressed with the range of things they contributed to. Some have problems with the politically neutral stance which allows them to undertake projects in countries, or with the co-operation of corporations, which other organizations’ external relations prevent them from trying. Earthwatch takes the view that their ability to garner good data in such areas is therefore even more important.

If anyone is interested in going on one of their trips, I advise them to order the brochure asap. There was a 5 year waiting list for volunteers to get onto some of the big cat projects, others have no wait.

Milan March 5, 2007 at 11:45 am

Antonia,

You are – as always – a wealth of information.

On the over-glamourizing side, the images I had in mind when considering the Earthwatch projects were those people from the BBC looking for snow leopards for weeks on end, as well as the photos I have seen from Kate’s whale study on Vancouver Island. The glamour comes from participating in actual scientific research (I may have a curious notion of glamour), not from staying somewhere swanky.

Some have problems with the politically neutral stance which allows them to undertake projects in countries, or with the co-operation of corporations, which other organizations’ external relations prevent them from trying. Earthwatch takes the view that their ability to garner good data in such areas is therefore even more important.

This sounds a bit like the Red Cross. There are lots of organizations out there taking a stance; having the ability to gain access on the basis of non-partisanship can be very important.

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