In for a dig

How vol­un­teers can en­joy sci­en­tific sab­bat­i­cals

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LEIGH DAY­TON

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.

PETER MAC­DON­ALD

The alien land­scape of Arka­roola in the Flin­ders Ranges has been likened to Mars and Saturn

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