Earthwatch Is Founded

Earthwatch—founded to provide scientists with the help of trained amateurs and amateurs with the opportunity to participate in scientific research expeditions—became one of the largest sponsors of field research in the world.

Summary of Event

In the United States, the mid- to late 1960’s saw a resurgence of concern for the environment as well as strong popular interest in learning about global issues. This was clearly reflected in the first celebration of Earth Day Earth Day in 1970. One of the most significant events to emerge from the environmental movement was the founding two years later of Earthwatch, a unique, tax-exempt, nonprofit institution that sponsors scholarly field research by finding paying volunteers to help scientists on research expeditions throughout the world. Earthwatch
Environmental organizations
[kw]Earthwatch Is Founded (1971)
[kw]Founded, Earthwatch Is (1971)
Environmental organizations
[g]North America;1971: Earthwatch Is Founded[00080]
[g]United States;1971: Earthwatch Is Founded[00080]
[c]Environmental issues;1971: Earthwatch Is Founded[00080]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1971: Earthwatch Is Founded[00080]
Rosborough, Brian A.
Edgerton, Harold E.
Citron, Bob
Truesdale, Clarence

Environmental studies had by that time been incorporated into many scientific and social disciplines, but funding for environmental research was in a decline. This was particularly true of field expeditions because of their proportionately higher expenses; field trips are labor-, time-, travel-, and supply-intensive, and often an environmental study requires a number of trips to be completed successfully.

At the same time that scientists were struggling to find funding, an increasing number of private citizens were eager to participate in the effort to address environmental and social problems. This development was partly due to the increased number of college students (of all ages) and to an upsurge of interest in the sciences in general. These two factors spurred the proliferation of television shows, magazines, and books on the environment, which in turn generated new interest.

Until the late 1800’s, knowledgeable amateurs had played a long and illustrious part in the history of scientific endeavor, particularly in the study of nature. Then, as science evolved into separate disciplines and these too began to focus more narrowly and to become more specialized and complex, it became harder for amateurs to understand, much less participate in, science. Continued specialization eventually resulted in the realization that data from different fields had to be correlated for their significance to become clear. As a result, most science in the later 1900’s involved some degree of interdisciplinary collaboration. In the environmental sciences, this involved combining the natural with the social sciences, resulting in what was once called simply natural history.

Basic scientific research, whether it is incomprehensible to the general public or not, usually involves a considerable amount of routine and straightforward data gathering, an area where trained amateurs can be exceedingly useful. An unusual aspect of the study of nature, as it happens, is that throughout its history and into the present, amateur naturalists contributed to the accumulation of knowledge by observing, recording, and gathering information.

A first attempt to provide scientists with the help of trained amateurs came in 1971, when Bob Citron of the Smithsonian Institution and Clarence Truesdale, the superintendent of public schools in Vermont, included amateur astronomers on a professional expedition to observe a total eclipse of the Sun in Africa. As a result of this trip, they established Educational Expeditions International, Educational Expeditions International which during its first year sponsored one anthropological and three geological trips to Costa Rica, the Galápagos, Ethiopia, and Zambia. The expeditions showed that working relationships between volunteers and scientists could be successful. Logistical problems and inadequate funding, however, left the organization nine thousand dollars in debt.

In the spring of 1971, a volunteer, Brian A. Rosborough, joined the organization and tried to save it. Six months later, he founded Earthwatch on the same premise as that of Educational Expeditions International. With the help of Harold E. Edgerton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rosborough created a financially secure organization that built on and expanded the concept of its predecessor.

Earthwatch expeditions were set up by matching proposals for scientific field studies with applications from interested volunteers, whose fee for accompanying the trip covered their expenses as well as a portion of the research. Earthwatch is also funded by private donors, foundations, and corporations, as well as by members who wish to keep informed of Earthwatch activities. Eventually, the organization began to provide fellowships to teachers, students, and others. Other Earthwatch activities include publication of a magazine and cooperative projects with agencies around the world. Among these is a joint program with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UNESCO begun in 1994, to cosponsor scientific and cultural studies in the developing countries.


Twenty years after its inception, Earthwatch—initially an experiment that many observers considered inappropriate or impossible to carry out—ranked with the National Geographic Society National Geographic Society and the World Wildlife Fund World Wildlife Fund as one of the largest sponsors of field research in the world. By 2006, Earthwatch had more than eighty thousand volunteers worldwide, and its Center for Field Research was receiving more than one thousand proposals each year from scholars requesting the help of volunteers. It raises an annual budget of about $15 million and awards grants to scientists. Earthwatch also funds educational activities as well as fellowships to teachers and students.

The fellowships have been aimed specifically at improving the ability of teachers to interest students in environmental and social problems; promoting cross-cultural teaching and student exchange programs; developing projects in the urban schools to combat high school dropout rates and assisting projects that stimulate school reform; funding artists, writers, and cinematographers who chronicle the pace and impacts of global change; and encouraging corporate work-learning programs. Earthwatch funding focuses on five broad areas of scientific and cultural research: earth sciences, study of threatened habitats, strategies for living, study of human impacts, and managing the planet.

Although the value of Earthwatch’s contributions to science and public understanding of science are difficult to calculate precisely, it is undeniable that these contributions have been important. Among the many successful Earthwatch projects have been expeditions that studied ancient elephants in China, human origins in Africa, the Mexican megafauna, Oxford mammoths, and the end of the dinosaurs; field trips to Oregon caves, Mount Olympus, the Himalayas, the Big Bend volcanoes, and the Kamchatka volcanoes; expeditions that mapped the Pacific seafloor, searched the underground waters of Florida, and delved into the history of Ontario’s rivers; and explorations of the Bahamas’ blue holes, Canary Island sea life, coral reefs around the world, and tropical and temperate forests in various countries.

Individual animals studied include migratory species, marine mammals, and endangered species throughout the world. Cultural projects include the study of Old and New World archaeology and ancient cultures, nutrition and health, revision of history, and methods of traditional forms of agriculture, architecture, and energy use. Among the ecosystem studies were surveys of biodiversity, ecosystem dynamics, global warming, water management, and the restoration of ecosystems.

Exemplifying the benefits resulting from Earthwatch sponsorship, two expeditions to study the ecology of a mountain in eastern New Guinea, from its tropical rain-forest base to its alpine peak, contributed new information about the plants, animals, soil, climate, physical ecology, and biodiversity of the region. Funding provided for an Australian project resulted in the publication of Guide to Mt. Kaindi, a compilation of previously unavailable information on the ecology of eastern New Guinea that became particularly useful for researchers doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea.

Over the years, a number of organizations have been founded in partial imitation of Earthwatch, but most of them have emphasized the commercial appeal of providing outdoor experiences or ecotourism. In the twenty-first century, Earthwatch continues to make unparalleled contributions to the general public’s involvement in science and the resolution of environmental and social problems. Earthwatch
Environmental organizations

Further Reading

  • Best, David. “Earthwatch: Matching Scientific Brains with Amateur Brawn.” American Way, September, 1979, 72-75. A brief history of the organization and a report on its work at the time, including selected experiences of Earthwatch volunteers. Provides more information than most of the other human-interest articles on the organization.
  • Betts, Kellyn. “Stalking the Reef’s Night Stalkers: On Vacation with a Scientific Mission in Belize.” Sea Frontiers 39 (May-June, 1993): 22-28. An account of Earthwatch volunteers’ participation in marine biology studies near Belize. An interesting glimpse of the day-to-day activities of volunteers.
  • Gressitt, J. Linsley, and Nalini Nadkarni. Guide to Mt. Kaindi: Background to Montane New Guinea Ecology. Wau, Papua New Guinea: Wau Ecology Institute, 1978. A handbook on the ecology of eastern New Guinea, based on the data from two Earthwatch expeditions.
  • “Playing Peace Corps.” American Demographics 11 (February, 1989): 14-15. A description of the organization’s late 1980’s projects.

Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace

Cousteau Society Is Founded

Worldwatch Institute Is Founded

U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated

Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Foreman Founds Earth First!