In for a dig
How volunteers can enjoy scientific sabbaticals
THE Explorers Club is elite, exclusive and discreetly positioned in uptown Manhattan. Leaving my friends to swap tales of derring-do, I wander upstairs past a tasteful jumble of objects: globes, stuffed animals, old furniture and artefacts from ‘‘quaint’’ cultures.
The stairwells are lined with rows of members’ photographs: polar explorers Robert E. Peary, Roald Amundsen and Edmund Hillary; astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Sally Ride; oceanographers Sylvia Earle and Bob Ballard; primatologists Jane Goodall and George Schaller; even sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke and geneticist James Watson of double-helix fame. I reach the top of the last flight of stairs and enter a little room crammed with books and documents, not to mention librarian Dorthea Sartain, Lowell the resident cat, and a big guy named Jim Thompson.
Turns out Thompson, chairman of the club’s Florida chapter, is a fan of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. In fact, he’ll be there again in July, pottering about Arkaroola’s alien landscape. More about that in a minute.
Meanwhile, go back a few years. That’s when the entrepreneurial, as well as adventurous, Thompson leveraged his top-drawer network and unusual expertise ( using thermal imaging to investigate caves and underground springs, and to assist disaster recovery) into an equally unusual science travel business called Out There Expeditions.
Do not think up-market tours of ruins or museums. We’re talking ‘‘boots-on-the-ground’’ scientific ‘‘sabbaticals’’, as he puts it. The idea is to give the wealthy and curious an ‘‘elite adventure’’. As Thompson explains: ‘‘Guests learn and practise basic field research, collection and survey methods essential to any scientific expedition’’.
Thompson’s travellers pay to be bossed about by scientists. It’s a triple bottom line affair: volunteers fulfil Indiana Jones fantasies, scientists get free field assistants, and Thompson gets paid to go to exotic places and meet fascinating people, with money left over to fund his personal hot-air balloon.
So far, he has led nine scientific expedition sabbaticals in conjunc- tion with the US space agency NASA. He also works with the Mars Society in California, its Australian branch and the Canadian Space Agency. Travellers work and the agencies get precious data.
Back home, I ask University of NSW paleontologist Mike Archer if this is a concept whose time has come. ‘‘If private individuals can afford it and have a basic education, bring them along to work with desperate but impoverished scientists. It’s just what we need.’’
Desperate? Impoverished? Desperate, because scientists such as Archer — who for decades has headed the excavation of Australia’s most famous fossil site, Riversleigh in Queensland — never have enough hands to do the field work. Impoverished, as science funding has eroded over the years. Researchers such as Archer struggle to bring their traditional source of unpaid labour, their graduate students, to the field with them.
It’s not just Australia. Even big players such as NASA are feeling the pinch. ‘‘With slashes in govern- ment and private-sector funding for field research, scientists and their agencies need participants and funding,’’ Thompson says. ‘‘But in return, scientists engage our guests in an unparalleled trueadventure expedition.’’
Further, Archer has long argued that when non-experts work on a field project, they broaden their intellectual horizons. Also, as much basic research is federally funded, visitors experience their tax dollars at work. ‘‘I can’t imagine a dig I’ve done that hasn’t had as many volunteers as scientists involved,’’ he says.
Clearly, there are public relations benefits, too. Some volunteers are so excited, they come back year after year. Others have even provided much welcomed financial contributions. Archer recalls bringing a university vicechancellor and assorted politicians to Riversleigh. ‘‘It allowed them to cross the bridge and understand what science is about.’’
Finding people with the time as well as the interest to lend a hand is not simple. Archer, for one, has worked with local travel and interest groups with variable success. Little wonder he welcomes Thompson’s approach.
Thompson is putting the final touches on the July expedition. Given his predilections, it’s unsurprising expeditioners have paid $US15,000 each to help conduct thermographic surveys of naturally radioactive hot springs and previously undiscovered caves in Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.
Why Arkaroola? Because the springs and caves bear similarities to what planetary scientists and astrobiologists expect to find on distant worlds such as Mars or the moons of Saturn.
Three guesses about who will get the results. Three answers: NASA, the Mars Society and the Canadian Space Agency. Surely that’s a triple, triple bottom line. outthereexpeditions.com explorers.org Leigh Dayton is The Australian’s science writer.
The alien landscape of Arkaroola in the Flinders Ranges has been likened to Mars and Saturn