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Building a sustainable future

By Ret Boney

Twelve years ago, Ed Wilson rode his motorcycle an hour each way, every day, from London to Oxford to volunteer for the Earthwatch Institute.

This November, he was named president and CEO of the international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research across the globe.

“I personally believe this is one of the most exciting organizations working in the world today,” he says.  “It’s not often in life you get to tick off one of your life’s ambitions.”

Earthwatch was started in 1971 with the mission of providing funding and volunteer staff for primary field research with the goal of creating a healthy and sustainable environment for the future.

“The organization was set up to fund research through public engagement,” Wilson says.  “Something that is as important as the research is that we get people involved.”

The group offers regular people the opportunity to work as research assistants in the field, and the money people pay to do that supports the research projects they join, he says.

Since its inception, Earthwatch has deployed about 85,000 volunteers to assist field researchers in 119 countries, representing 10.8 million hours of donated time and $57 million in funding.

The group’s 130 current expeditions range from excavating an ancient Andean settlement in Peru and studying the declining Australian frog population to improving the health of pregnant women in India.

Next year alone, the group, with a budget of about $20 million and 125 employees, plans to staff and fund about 145 projects in 48 countries and 16 states in the U.S.

Wilson has taken the helm at a pivotal time, he believes, and is preparing the organization to focus and intensify its reach.

Ed Wilson

Job: President and CEO, Earthwatch Institute, Maynard, Mass.

Education: B.A., geography with specialization in African studies and third-world development, Kings College, London University

Born: Shropshire, England, 1966

Family: Wife, Imogen; son, Titus, age 7; daughter, Tallulah, age 5

Recently read: “1421: The Year China Discovered America,” by Gavin Menzies

Favorite Earthwatch expedition: Studying desertification of Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia

Inspiration: Edward O. Wilson (no relation), Harvard professor and “the father of conservation biology”

“The next decade is critical in terms of any chance we have of coming up with a sustainable future, of getting the right balance between the needs of people and the needs of the environment,” he says.

Wilson feels a sense of urgency in becoming more focused in the research Earthwatch supports, he says, and wants to direct the organization’s resources to a few key areas where he thinks the business model works well.

Those are likely to include climate change, management of natural resources, the state of the world’s oceans, and communities.

The results of those research efforts will then inform other global efforts, including the United Nations’ millennium development goals.

At the same time, Wilson wants to focus the group’s volunteer recruitment on specific groups to spark behavioral change and influence decisionmakers.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” he says of joining an Earthwatch expedition. “People return with a far greater understanding of what’s happening in terms of environment and cultures, and there’s never been a more important time for us to build on that.”

In addition to the public in general, key stakeholders include educators, who Wilson says need relevant experience they can translate into classroom learning, and students.

“There’s a need to get young people out of their comfort zone and exposed to different cultures and lifestyles to make them less insular,” he says.

One way of doing that is through Live from the Field, an Earthwatch program that sends teachers into the field with video cameras, laptops and satellite phones so they can send live feeds back to thousands of students at a time.

He also wants to continue working with corporations, which he says “have more potential to do good than all the NGO’s and governments put together.”

The vision for corporate social responsibility typically comes from the chief executive of a corporation, Wilson says, but he hopes to drive that down the ladder to create social responsibility at the individual and community levels.

To do that, Earthwatch is working with about 40 major corporations internationally that pay to send their employees on expeditions.

“What happens is that these are bright people, and by engaging them in some of these realities, we find that it has a tremendous impact in changing the culture and mindset of the company,” he says.

As the son of a British army man whose family moved every three years, Wilson has always been a student of the world, living and working in countries including Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Hong Kong.

After earning a degree in geography with a specialization in African studies and third-world development, he was commissioned as an officer with the British army and spent five years in the counter-terrorism unit.

He then consulted for the Zimbabwe national parks system, discovering Earthwatch along the way.

“I fell in love with the organization and saw that the organization was only beginning to scratch the surface of its potential,” Wilson says.

He began volunteering in 1993, joined the European marketing staff later that year, and was transferred to the international headquarters in Maynard, Mass., in 1998 as vice president of marketing and communications.

He later served as chief operating officer and executive vice president, and was interim CEO while Earthwatch conducted the international search that resulted in his promotion.

Now at the helm, Wilson plans to focus the group’s activities to influence what he sees as a pivotal decade.

“Our existing footprint and our existing way of doing business are going to become, in some areas, irreversible in terms of potential remedies,” he says of humanity as a whole.  “We’ve got to step up to the plate.”

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