Adventure Scientists is harnessing the skill, motivation, and geographic reach of people who recreate in the outdoors – hikers, surfers, kayakers, mountain bikers and more – and applying it to rigorous data collection for the purpose of environmental stewardship and conservation.
The New Idea
At a time when public dollars for science and especially for environmental science are in short supply, Gregg has developed a platform for gathering actionable data in remote places at the hands of outdoor adventurers turned amateur scientists – data that is helping us better understand our changing environment and that can shape government policy and corporate decision‐making alike. His work takes citizen science to a new level by partnering with and even contracting for major public institutions and private companies, from the U.S. Forest Service and EPA to Patagonia and Croakies, who themselves have limited capacity to gather the science. Adventure Scientists volunteers are trained and managed so that the quality of the data collected is as high as that collected by professionals. What’s more, their unique skill sets, attention to detail, and comfort in the remote outdoors makes them ideally suited for the task. Already thousands of volunteers are collecting far more data in far more places than was possible before.
Adventure Scientists has managed several largescale projects including a 4year effort to collect and monitor microplastics in both freshwater and oceans across the globe. This campaign is informing businesses and governments about the scale of this issue and strategies for addressing it. Now, public institutions approach Gregg and Adventure Scientists for support on projects as diverse as tracking wildlife species on prairie land or surveying thousands of abandoned mines across the U.S in part because Gregg’s network can complete such projects for far less than traditional costs. Just as important, Gregg has created an avenue for the millions of people who love the outdoors to contribute in significant ways to its protection and preservation for future generations. His hope is that in a decade the lack of available data will no longer be an excuse for environmental inaction while growing a constituency from which significant environmental changemaking will originate and be sustained.
Human activity continues to have a massive impact on the environment and the planet. Many of these impacts could be mitigated through the application of data and technology. However, the relevant scientific data and subsequent analysis is simply not being conducted due to a lack of political support and funding dollars. As a result, the potential to address these issues remains largely unrealized.
Although there are an increasing number of open databases as well as newfound interest and support for the field of citizen science, a distinct gap remains between collection and implementation of solutions. Citizen science endeavors may focus almost entirely on the education and engagement of the volunteer rather than the direct and tangible pathways from data collection to meaningful outcomes and impact. Indeed, the majority of samples collected by broad citizen science campaigns come from within 2 miles of a road or trail, leaving most of the planet unaccounted for. The types and quality of data required for robust scientific research, and which might ultimately drive policy change, rarely come from such efforts.
The problem has only become heightened in 2017 with funding for basic scientific research and environmental conservation likely to be cut further, meaning that agencies are having to get by with less and less, despite wide agreement globally that we are reaching a crisis point in the relationship between human beings and the planet. Finally, among the millions of Americans who are compelled to act on behalf of the environment – including and especially those who regularly recreate in the outdoors – too many find themselves asking what it is that they could do to make a difference.
Gregg’s strategy is to continue to roll out and complete a larger number of data collection projects with progressively big ambition and scope while simultaneously growing the network of outdoor adventure volunteers that make all the work possible. As he does so, he hopes to get to a point where fee‐for‐service institutional partnerships underwrite the majority of the work, a move that not only enables growth but also positions volunteer scientists as an increasingly permanent piece of the puzzle in our efforts to understand and protect our environment. His goal is two-fold: first, that robust and rigorous data will drive decisionmaking favorable to conservation, and second, that outdoor enthusiasts will find new roles for themselves as environmental changemakers.
Since its founding in 2011, Adventure Scientists has overseen more than 100 data collection projects. Some were small and spanned the course of just a few months, other much larger and took years. These include a two‐year project with the Olympic National Forest to track and monitor pine martens, a three‐year wildlife mapping project with the American Prairie Reserve, an environmental assessment of the impact of planned oil and gas lines on grizzly bear populations on the Centennial mountain range, and a partnership with Harvard Medical School focused on identifying the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance. The most comprehensive effort to date was the four‐year microplastics initiative that collected water samples from more than 6,000 volunteers in dozens of countries to determine the presence and levels of microplastics that enter into waters from hundreds of manufactured products, from fishing lines to clothing.
As the demand for volunteers has grown, Gregg and his team have developed a more rigorous set of metrics and a process for vetting requests. He considers his volunteers as ‘human capital’ that requires the same kind of due diligence as you might conduct for investment capital. He and his team ask themselves three central questions: (1) Is there an environmental issue that has previously been data-limited in a way that hinders possible solutions? (2) Is there a tangible pathway from data collection to the outcomes of an “environmental win”? And (3) Is there a need for our outdoor community network? Any proposal that gets three ‘yeses’ is seriously considered.
For the Harvard project, for example, it was clear that if successful, gaining the ability to one day turn off antibiotic resistance in clinical settings would be a massive win for human health and the environment. The partnership has advanced Harvard’s efforts to do just that. Now that Adventure Scientists has developed a reputation for thoroughness and quality, similar companies as well as public institutions are seeing the organization as a lower-cost way to meet environmental goals or requirements. Recently, for example, Gregg has inked a deal with the Forest Service for a project to survey orphaned and idled oil and gas wells in order to prioritize them for remediation.
Because business and government agencies in particular see the cost savings in using Adventure Scientists volunteers, Gregg expects a greater portion of his projects going forward to be feefor-service. Such revenue would be stabilizing for the organization and would enable Gregg and his team to train many more volunteers, a process that depending on the project can be quite time intensive. It is the screening and training of volunteers, in fact, that Gregg believes is responsible for the consistent high-quality data collection that is essential for growing a robust partnership pipeline. The training solidifies volunteer buy‐in (they have to earn a spot) and almost doubles volunteer follow-through. Again, for the microplastics project, each volunteer had to complete trainings on proper sample collection procedures followed by an online quiz before given the green light. Despite such requirements, Adventure Scientists receives far more applications for volunteers than are accepted (for the prairie project, the ratio was 9:1).
Part of Gregg’s success in attracting volunteers is the simple fact that he taps into groups who already have an affinity for the outdoors and who may be looking for ways to contribute to conservation. In the era of social media and online networks it is easier than ever for word of mouth to travel, and the Adventure Scientists team are adept at sharing stories and videos across such networks to entice greater numbers to raise their hands and participate. In addition, a particularly creative strategy for recruitment has been to select high‐profile outdoor athletes to become spokespeople for Adventure Scientists and for the important role of contributing to conservation more broadly. From champion surfers like Lakey Peterson to snowboarders to recordsetting mountain climbers, the endorsement of such celebrities has created a tremendous uptick in volunteers and just as important, a growing conversation about the responsibility of those who work and play in the outdoors to care for the environment. A Clif Barsponsored video featuring star snowboarder Jeremy Jones led to tens-of-thousands more snowboarders reaching out to Adventure Scientists.
Regardless of whether these snowboarders or surfers or rock climbers come to Adventure Scientists as volunteers, Gregg can already spot behavior change within such communities in terms of how they think about their recreation and their unique role at the front lines in helping the world spot the environmental change that is happening and how we might reverse it. In fact, behavior change is one of three levels of concentric circles in his impact ‘bulls eye’, with solutions unlocked by data at the very center, and broader issue awareness in popular media at the outside. With each project, therefore, Gregg develops a media strategy that will drive further attention to both the environmental issue at hand and to the power of outdoor adventurers taking on this additional role.
Over the next 35 years Gregg and his team plan to grow the number and the size of the projects they take on. Some of these Gregg describes as ‘moonshot’ projects, which are global, multi-year, and will require potentially tens of thousands of volunteers. One such project is an idea to collect genetic samples from commercially viable trees all over the world in order to create the first‐ever intraspecies genetic maps to trace which products were made from illegally harvested wood. These moonshots will be complemented by a range of smaller and mediumsized projects, including a new $650,000 contract with the Forest Service for surveying oil and gas wells on U.S. Forest Service land, and a number of state‐level Abandoned Mine projects with agencies that would prioritize wells for reclamation. Adventure Scientists also just launched the first large-scale backcountry dataset that identifies pollinating butterfly abundance, diversity, and distribution as well as host plants across remote portions of western mountain ranges. Public land managers will use these data to inform actions such as prescribed burning, protection of threatened species, and forest planning.
Founded in 2011, Adventure Scientists now has a full-time staff of 12 and an operating budget of $1.4 million. While he expects the organization to continue to grow, supported in large part by fee‐forservice contracts, he is beginning to think more about an ‘end game’ that involves the replication of his approach beyond his organization’s walls, perhaps even including the institutionalization of volunteer engagement by public agencies themselves. Getting to such a tipping point, he recognizes, begins and ends with building a mindset among outdoor adventurers that each time they recreate outdoors they can and should be making a difference with their time.
Gregg describes Adventure Scientists as the embodiment of his passions. After years of feeling unfulfilled through simply exploring, he “found” the sciences, and began working to track lynx, wolverines and grizzly bears as well as studying owls and sturgeon. He discovered that he could contribute to the public good by doing what he loved to do, which was to be outside, exploring, and supporting conservation projects. As an individual, he always believed that he had a responsibility to maximize his positive impact in the world. By teaching others to use their same outdoor skills to collect data for the development of solutions to environmental problems, he realized he could have far more impact even than he had imagined.
Gregg was never a classroom textbook learner. He struggled in school but leaned on his creativity, optimism and persistence to carry him through. He fought through a number of significant challenges in his childhood and early adolescence and learned from those challenges that there is always a way to overcome the obstacles in your path – a philosophy that carried him across his many adventure treks including one in the Andes that earned him National Geographic’s ‘Adventurer of the Year’ in 2008. Today he applies that philosophy as an entrepreneur who built Adventure Scientists from a couch and a computer in Montana to the $1.5M organization it has become.