Cambridge, Mass. — WHY would anybody spend lots of money and vacation time to help scientists do their grunt work? Oh, maybe to be kissed by a dolphin. Or to be the first human to set eyes on a brand-new species. Or just to be an invisible laborer helping to propel science forward another inch. Since 1971, Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization housed in a former school in Watertown, Mass., has acted on the premise that laymen would be interested enough in scientific research to use their own funds and elbow grease to further it. And they have: More than 20,000 people have engaged in this ``participatory philanthropy,'' as they call it, supporting 1,000 expeditions in 80 countries.
And the research has paid off: Some 500 volunteers over five years have saved an estimated 40,000 leatherback sea turtles, one of the most endangered species in the southeast US. That research won Earthwatch the Department of Interior's 1987 Conservation Service Award.
Teams made up of scientists and amateurs have discovered hundreds of new species of insects and frogs, the fourth-ever dinosaur skull in Australia, the first skull of a great short-faced bear in the American Great Plains. They built a museum in Swaziland at the king's request after he saw an impromptu art exhibit volunteers put together at a school.
When Earthwatch presented its annual expedition reports two weeks ago, 50 principal investigators, as the scientists and scholars are called, came bearing slides and tales. Just about every aspect of science was represented: animal, vegetable, mineral. Earthwatch also sponsors arts and humanities expeditions - from studying Inca architecture in Peru to taping oral histories and studying rock art of Aborigines in Australia.
The expeditions - don't call them trips, Earthwatchers will frown - work this way: Find something in the glossy, photo-packed catalog that looks interesting; sign up. Fly to the site. Depending on the project, the tasks might be anything from stalking and tagging animals (sometimes at night) to observing migration patterns, making maps and videotapes, compiling statistics, or sifting through soil.
Usually field volunteers work hard all day or night, share in cooking chores, live and sleep in rustic conditions. Definitely no-frills.
Some expeditions are not for the squeamish or fainthearted. To study humpback whales in Hawaii, volunteers should be prepared to spend a full day in a boat in possibly choppy water. In a special, very expensive expedition ($5,000), a volunteer will get to go down 3,000 feet in a submersible with Eugenie Clark and the pilot for four to six hours at a stretch to study deepwater sharks. The submersible is designed for one person; with three, ``no one can move without the express permission of the other two,'' says Dr. Clarke's assistant, Joan Rabin, who looks surprisingly unkinked after several such trips.
At the conference, wild-haired Dominic Powlesland, principal investigator for the excavation of a medieval village in Yorkshire, England, showed a slide of a skeleton and deadpanned, ``This expedition has the reputation for being one of the hardest on its field volunteers.'' A woman from his expedition jumped up, ``I just want to say that I had the most fascinating three weeks of my life.''
The cost of the expeditions is divided among the participants. The average, $1,200, goes for ``the principal investigator's airfare, the Land Rover, carbon 14 datings, stipends for foreign students, and living expenses for research team and volunteers,'' according to Blue Magruder, director of public affairs. Then there's the airfare. Going to Malawi to study the mating habits of African lake fish, or to Borneo to study orangutans, could add a hefty $1,500. There are, however, plenty of projects within the US for more modest budgets. A few volunteers grumble privately that the principal investigators seem to be doing rather well for it being a nonprofit organization. Some of the funds come from the 20 corporations that support Earthwatch, among them Raytheon, the Irvine Foundation (for minority children), and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (for New Jersey teachers to learn about rain forests).
So who goes? A survey done in 1985 indicates that 60 percent of the Earthwatch volunteers are women, 56 percent are over 45, half are married, and 82 percent have college degrees. They're a well-traveled lot: professionals, scientists, managers, students, and retired people. Sixteen percent are teachers.
Aren't the principal investigators worried that a clumsy volunteer will wreck a decade's worth of research?
``You don't have to be a PhD to look at your watch and write down, `It's been 10 minutes and the monkey is still sleeping,''' says Alison Jolly, who's directed expeditions on lemurs in Madagascar.
``Earthwatch gives me some of my best field crews,'' says Dr. Larry D. Agenbroad, who puts volunteers to work on his mammoth graveyard project at Hot Springs, S.D., doing everything from heavy labor to using dental tools to clean bones. ``You have to be really enthusiastic to pay that kind of money. I always find someone who wanted to be a paleontologist. Here's a chance to live out that fantasy for two weeks - to be Indiana Jones.''
Teacher Trinza Joost was a volunteer on his expedition last summer. ``I shoveled ... and shoveled,'' she said with a smile, ``and cleaned bones. The whole thing was fascinating; so different from what I do.'' She explains that she received a fellowship from her school department in Worcester, Mass., and this was the trip Earthwatch picked for her. She's going next summer on her own steam.
Several of the principal investigators said that often people who go on these expeditions are at a turning point in their lives. And sometimes they make big changes. ``Several times people got totally hooked,'' says Agenbroad. ``They went back to school and became professionals in their own right.''
Pat Sustendal, a silver-haired artist wearing necklaces from Tunisia, helped excavate a Bronze Age settlement on Majorca in 1985. She fell in love with the island and ended up staying two years.
Earthwatch was started in 1971 by a group of scientifically minded people in the Boston area in response to a need for funds and labor to support scientific research. Brian Rosborough, then an investment banker, now the president of Earthwatch, thought of using ``adventure capital'' to get the research projects off the ground.
Earthwatch put a few ``get your hands dirty'' ads in teachers' magazines. The ads brought forth 39 volunteers to go on four expeditions, led by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution. This year, there are 2,700 paying volunteers and 300 teachers or students who receive fellowship support. Their latest endeavor: taking advantage of glasnost, the organization is trying to establish collaborative research projects with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.