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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #17: Brian Rosborough Watches the Earth for Science

Air Date: Week of

In the latest in our series of environmental pioneers, Living on Earth host Steve Curwood and producer Deborah Stavro bring us a glimpse of Brian Rosborough, head of a non-profit called Earthwatch. Earthwatch in Watertown, Massachusetts links paying volunteers to scientific research projects around the globe. Hear how Rosborough got involved.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Throughout the year, Living on Earth has been profiling American environmental pioneers. This week we meet Brian Rosborough, founding president of the research organization Earthwatch. It was Rosborough's brainstorm to send paying volunteers on scientific expeditions around the world.

(Computer sounds, beeps, dolphin speech. Man: "Panels fit.")

CURWOOD: A half-dozen volunteers in Hawaii are helping scientists teach dolphins language, which will also help us learn how human language evolved. It's one of nearly 2,000 scientific research expeditions in 100 countries that have been sponsored by Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization in Watertown, Massachusetts. Over the past 20 years, Earthwatch has established a new approach to environmental research which makes scientific research assistants out of ordinary citizens. Scientists from many fields, physics, archaeology, geology, medicine, apply to Earthwatch for help funding and staffing their field expeditions. Volunteers sign up with the scientists of their choice and contribute 2 or 3 weeks of free labor and a share of the expedition costs. In return, they gain firsthand scientific field experience, often in remote regions inaccessible to the general public. They track timber wolves in Minnesota, sift through archaeological digs in Mallorca, collect insects from Peru's tree canopy, rise at 5 in the morning to band song birds in Canada.

(Dolphins sounds, whistles)

CURWOOD: Creating such an unusual organization and making it fly required a combination of dedicated environmentalist, high flying adventurer, and hard-nosed entrepreneur. In essence, a business executive in a wetsuit. That person was founding president Brian Rosborough.

ROSBOROUGH: In the early years I was in volcanoes, I've dived on wrecks, I've been in the canopies of forest trees. Over the years I have tended to go on projects that seemed to have more risk involved.

CURWOOD: Risk has been a familiar theme in Rosborough's career. As a former Wall Street investment banker and attorney, Rosborough specialized in corporate acquisitions, until the day he was approached by scientists at the Smithsonian to sponsor an expedition to Africa. he volunteered himself and left Wall Street behind. Today he uses his business acumen to help scientists get more support for constructive ideas.

ROSBOROUGH: The way Earthwatch works is to look for agents of change, people who are vectors in some sense to solving a problem. And we take that quest and then take it public. We sell shares, so that you have a chance to involve yourself in the solution of the problem.

CURWOOD: Rosborough's entrepreneurial approach helped Earthwatch become the third largest private funder of science research in an era of scarce dollars and endangered ecosystems worldwide. And Earthwatch's unique team approach has inspired others. Montana State University biologist Bob Crabtree led an Earthwatch expedition to track coyote, elk, and bison in Yosemite. Then, using Earthwatch as his model, he started his own organization.

CRABTREE: In times of shrinking budgets and increasing environmental concerns, it's really provided an excellent option in order to sustain research and education programs.

CURWOOD: But Crabtree says money isn't the most valuable contribution that volunteers bring to research expeditions.

CRABTREE: I was just amazed at the quality of people that attend these expeditions. It's like the best students you could ever imagine. Not only do they contribute funds to work but they really come ready to go, and the quality of work that you get is very excellent. And you know, being an educator, there's no better feeling than having a great student leave very happy, and feeling that they've really accomplished something.

CURWOOD: Among the accomplishments of environmental organizations such as Earthwatch are hard-won legislative victories. Volunteers protecting nesting leatherback turtles on a beach in the Virgin Islands led to the creation of a national wildlife refuge. And on Hawaii, thousands of pieces of data collected by Earthwatch volunteers helped win legislation to protect the endangered pelila bird. Expeditions like these are hard work that people pay to do, but Earthwatch volunteers like Innes McDade aren't complaining.

MCDADE: My fantasy is sort of every three years or so to go through their brochure and pick one and do one until I die.

CURWOOD: With their glossy catalogues, exotic locales, and sometimes hefty price tags, some skeptics suggest that Earthwatch and other volunteer research expeditions are more fun-filled adventure vacations than science education. Brian Rosborough says that's just not so.

ROSBOROUGH: I'd like to think that it's an alternate form of education. Some people think science can't be taught indoors.

CURWOOD: Is your organization an eco-tourism organization?

ROSBOROUGH: I don't think so. Earthwatch is closer to Tom Sawyer, probably, than eco-tourism.

CURWOOD: Tom Sawyer?

ROSBOROUGH: We ask people to paint the fence, pay for the paint, and bring their talent.

CURWOOD: Brian Rosborough, founding president of Earthwatch in Watertown, Massachusetts.



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