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Thriving Earth Exchange and Community Science: What’s Next?

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By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

Thriving Earth Exchange and Community Science: What’s Next?

This year, Thriving Earth Exchange reached the goals set for the program as part of AGU’s Centennial: 100 projects in 100 communities, with over 100 scientists involved. In fact, we even got a little farther than that. So, how did we get there and where are we going?

The Journey So Far: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Since Thriving Earth Exchange began, we’ve launched 115 projects that impacted communities where more than 17 million people live. We’ve helped 299 local leaders use science, along with their own expertise, to improve and safeguard their communities, and we’ve helped 326 scientists contribute their expertise to make an impact. We’ve developed a method and process that turns the theories of community science into practice and helped build a cooperative of practice for community science at AGU.

This was a team effort,  made possible thanks to the talent energy, and vision of Thriving Earth Exchange Staff and Board, the AGU Board, our Thriving Earth partners, colleagues, and sponsors, and – most importantly – the community leaders, community scientists, and community fellows put their shoulders’ to the wheel and did amazing on-the-ground work in the places they live, play, pray and work.

Not only did we have strong shoulders to work with, we had big shoulders to stand on.  We learned from long traditions of engagement in the work of civic organizers, educational reformers, and citizen science. Design thinking, international aid and development, and social work showed us the importance of community ownership. The environmental justice and traditional ecological knowledge movements taught us the connection between science, participation and justice. Scientific fields like public health, ecology, climate action, and natural resources showed us what collaborative design between researchers, practitioners and community members could look like.  What Thriving Earth Exchange has done, more than anything else, is pull together ideas and strands from may sources and develop a method of practice and a set of tools for community science in the Earth and Space Sciences.


That Path Ahead: Goals and Guides


I can’t predict the future for Thriving Earth Exchange, but I can describe our goal and the strategies and principals we will use to navigate toward that goal. Our goal is a richer relationship between science and society, where scientists and leaders from every kind of community work together to design, conduct, and apply research that is anchored in local priorities. To reach that goal, we’ve got a set of principles that guide us along the way:

  • Iterate: As we seek to advance the practice of community science, we’ll have to adapt to changing conditions, and we’ll need to learn from our mistakes. Frequent experiments, constant refinement, and lots of small changes followed by careful reflection will be critical.
  • Do the Work: As our focus evolves from doing community science ourselves to helping others do the work of community science, we will have to stay grounded in the real experiences of scientists and communities who work together. We can’t guide it if we don’t do it.
  • Keep Communities First: Thriving Earth Exchange will grow its ability to serve communities. We should only accept funding and other resources when we have a clear plan for multiplying their impact. For every dollar we get, we should create more than a dollar of value.
  • Open Doors: As an organization, we have access to media and wider visibility. We will work to use our access to make opportunities and build a platform for communities to tell their stories in their
  • Be the Change: We want to be a change agent that helps science to be more participatory, more egalitarian, more inclusive and more collaborative. We have to apply that to ourselves, too, so we’ll be diversifying our board, broadening our partnerships, and creating ways for volunteers to participate in program leadership.
  • Work for All Communities: We will leverage our platform to filter the internal biases and barriers in science that deny certain groups and people the opportunity to participate. We will also join larger, cooperative efforts to dismantle injustice in society, since those larger injustices directly inhibit society’s ability to do science.[1]
  • Exercise Humility: Thriving Earth Exchange isn’t the only way to advance community science, and we have to be partners in larger efforts.

The Next Chapter: It’s bigger than us

Thriving Earth’s next job is to work with others and share what we’ve learned and built.  This will help advance community science because more people will learn and do community science.  It will also improve community science – sharing means more people improving, adapting, and iterating on community science. And sharing means sharing everything, not just the good things. We want to learn from mistakes, and I think we are more likely to learn if we have more perspectives to learn from.

Our sharing will focus in three areas over the next year.  :

  • Community Science Fellows: the current and future leaders in the community science movement. We just launched our second class of fellows. Instead of staff managing every project, we educate and support fellows who manage the individual projects. In doing so, we increase the number of the projects we can support.
  • Other organizations: We’ll start with other science organizations and expand to organizations with other kinds of skills and resources that communities can use to mobilize action.
  • International partners: In the years ahead, we look forward to partnering more outside our borders so that our partners can adapt and grow community science for the places that they know best

In all our sharing, the  most important thing we can share is a vision of a future.

  • A Future for science in which community science is as much a part of scientific practice as experiments, numerical modeling or, data mining
  • A Future for society where science is part of decision-making, and even the smallest, most isolated community can and does include scientific perspectives in its planning and deliberations.
  • A future where all communities participate in, guide, and benefit from science.
  • A Future where we make progress, together, on messy and intertwined challenges like climate change, inequity, pollution, poverty, natural hazards and injustice
  • A Future in which all people, and all creatures, thrive and science helps them thrive

I believe, I hope, and I will work so that Thriving Earth Exchange can be part of creating that future. And I hope you will join us.


[1] It can be tempting to think justice isn’t part of the work of science, but I think Science and scientists must help dismantle racism and fight poverty if we want to prevent racism and poverty from keeping communities out of science. We can’t expect others to do this work for us while we stay in the lab, for two reasons. First, we are privileged, as scientists, and we can and should use that privilege to help this cause. Second, science has benefited from some of the factors that have kept certain communities down, and that means we have a debt to pay off.


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