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Thriving Earth Exchange: Reflections of a Five-Year-Old

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya, Kevin Noone and Carol Finn

As we end 2018, Thriving Earth Exchange has developed a way to connect Earth and space science to meaningful community impact and is moving from start-up to scale-up. Thriving Earth Exchange can also amplify a larger movement toward community science. 

It is customary to use the time at the end of the year to reflect on where you’ve been and think about where you are headed. That reflection is especially appropriate this year since it is the is the end of five years of Thriving Earth Exchange, and that gives an opportunity to synthesize more learning. Secondly, we are emerging from a kind of heads-down, start-up approach and entering a more visible scale-up phase. Thirdly, we will be a featured program of the AGU Centennial, which gives our reflections more visibility and makes our plans more impactful. Finally, and this may be the most exciting, there is a larger movement toward community science, and reflecting on Thriving Earth Exchange can help us figure out how we can advance this larger trend.

Our projects over the past five years demonstrate that science, especially Earth and space science, can make a difference. Earth and space science helped a town clean up a polluted pond, helped a city reduce its impact on the world by cutting carbon emissions and helped a neighborhood protect itself from future flooding. Earth and space science got students excited about new careers, helped a community group gain confidence and credibility, and helped governments make better decisions.

In the process, we’ve learned that this doesn’t happen automatically—science is more likely to contribute meaningfully when projects are designed with a concrete outcome in mind. That outcome might be a specific decision or a concrete community goal, but the clear outcome is essential to avoid producing reports that sit on shelves or journal articles that aren’t acted on.

We’ve learned that successful projects draw on many kinds of skills and knowledge, not just science, to reach their outcomes. We’ve learned how to offer Earth and space science AND actively build connections to other kinds of knowledge, expertise and experience. When we do this well, we’ve got something that integrates the great things science has to offer (fidelity to evidence, focused investigation, tested processes) along with the myriad strengths that communities have, including local knowledge, historical wisdom, diverse skill sets, practical experience, political savvy and cultural competence, to name only a few.

Because science outcomes haven’t always been available to everyone, we’ve learned we need to make a special effort to pursue opportunities with communities and individuals who have been historically neglected, marginalized or oppressed.  We’ve learned to design projects, from the beginning, with the idea that all people and communities have something to offer. We’ve learned that building pathways that allow everyone to participate creates better outcomes and builds more support. That means reconsidering the ways we’ve typically done things and designing—with community partners—new ways to do things.

We’ve also built a whole system that translates these learnings into practice. It’s a four-step process. The first step is scoping or listening carefully to community priorities and strengths and designing a project that uses geoscience and those strengths to advance a community goal. The next steps are matching a scientist to work on the project; supporting the scientist-community-leader team with mentoring, project management, and coaching; and sharing the results. This process works: it has been used in nearly 90 projects that are making an impact.

With all that learning, and the defined process, we’ve gotten a little bit of a reputation. People are asking us to share what we know. In the past year alone, Thriving Earth Exchange was invited to help plan a Science to Action day by the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, helped organize sessions and a workshop on Science to Action at AGU’s Fall Meeting, helped lead the first National Academies study on citizen science, and contributed to the Integrated Assessment of Applied Climate Science—not to mention countless invitations to workshops and conferences.

With all that, we feel ready to switch from start-up mode to scale-up mode. We’ve developed a way for AGU to make an impact in and with 80 communities—but how would this work if we wanted to make an impact with 800, or 8,000? People are asking us to share what we’ve learned about this way of working, but what if this way of working was ubiquitous, easy to learn about and better supported? We’ve figured out how to offer our science in a way that integrates with community skills, but what if we could offer a menu of skills that included and extended beyond science? We’ve learned to design for equity, but what if that design translated into a real difference in the demographics of science, the projects we investigate, and even the very processes by which we do science?

We have a plan to tackle these questions and move Thriving Earth Exchange forward.

First, we want to expand volunteer participation to grow the number of projects. Right now, TEX staff lead project teams through every step of our four-step process. What if volunteers could lead teams through one, or more, steps? It would help us support more projects and it would also engage more volunteers. Engaging more volunteers also helps build support for the idea of community science.

Second, we want to use Thriving Earth Exchange to launch a collaborative network for community action. Instead of AGU, alone, designing, matching, scoping and sharing, we’d like to help coordinate a network of partners who do these things across a variety of fields. Any of the partners could scope a project, and any project could pull expertise from one or more of the partners. For instance, if a neighborhood leader needed legal, hydrological and financial partners to explore options for flood mitigation, the coordinated network could supply it.

Third, we want to explore new ways to sustain Thriving Earth Exchange. Of course we are interested in standard strategies of non-profit fundraising: grants from foundations, individual donors, partners. But we are also interested in less conventional ideas. Could Thriving Earth be run more like a business? Could we partner with existing businesses? Could we attract venture capital? What about social enterprise investing? To help us explore these options, Thriving Earth Exchange is adding new board members and building new alliances.

Fourth, we will help coalesce an emergent community of practice around community science. There is a larger and growing movement around community science, one that includes people focused on citizen science, climate adaptation, science education, science equity and natural hazard resilience. There is even a grassroots group of AGU members, Science to Action, who are organizing around their shared interest in—you guessed it—science to action. We are connected to all these efforts, and in a unique position to help them coordinate around their common goal of advancing community science. To do this, we will focus on developing shared metrics and increasing communication and collaboration among these groups.

Thriving Earth Exchange was started as a start-up, including keeping a bit under the radar so it could have room to experiment. The experiment has been a success, and after five years we are ready to move to the next phase: scaling up. Scaling up is an inherently visible process, since it depends on growing the number of people aware of and participating in what we do. The challenge of the next five years will be continuing to learn and evolve but doing it in broad daylight and with a growing number of partners. Wish us luck!


Sarah Wilkins subscriber

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