James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

10 Tips For Your First Science Expedition

“The urge to explore a wilderness is inseparable from the desire to help save it.” – Michael Fay

1.     Embrace Your Inner Scientist

I’d like to start by busting the myth that you need to be a scientist to do science. Rubbish. There’s a huge number of Citizen Science Projects out there, with more appearing all the time. These are projects that need ordinary folks to help collect valuable data: From the birds you can see in the garden to the whales you saw whilst rowing the Atlantic, or microbes collected whilst summiting Denali. So if you’re planning an expedition, take a look at how you might be able to help too. (Here’s a great example!)


2.     Extra Funding Opportunities

Choosing to undertake an expedition with an element of research and fieldwork opens up a range of extra funding and sponsorship opportunities (like these..). A lot of these might be from less familiar sources, so it’s worth doing some research to find out what you might be eligible for.


3.     Understand The Big Picture

Do your homework and learn about the history of the region you are visiting. Who might have been there before (or a nearby area), what did they do? Did they learn anything that could make your life easier? Try searching the RGS expedition database, or online journals, and if you find someone then get in touch – they will probably be more than happy to regale you with stories and advice.


4.     Test Everything Before You Leave

You might naturally think to check essential items such as satellite phones, GPS and first aid kits in advance. But for scientists, your life might very much depend on all your equipment working too (or at least that’s the way it feels). Try to keep equipment simple and fixable, keep especially important items in your hand luggage if possible. Take plenty of silica gel, several rolls of duct tape and a pen knife.


5.     Take Books

All self-respecting heroic Victorian naturalists took small libraries with them (although they weren’t generally the poor folks that had to carry them!). Take the best selection of field guides and species keys you can get your hands on, you never know what you’ll find. Hide the big ones in your teammates rucksack for extra amusement.


6.     Get Your Priorities Straight

What’s the motivation for your expedition? Adventure with a spot of fieldwork, or fieldwork with the inevitable adventures. Both are great and worthwhile, but if conditions demand you compromise you’ll need to have your priorities worked out.


7.     Collaborate

Always aim to work with local partners. Share your data at the very least, and if possible work together in the field – you will invariably learn a great deal from each other. Local people will be far more familiar with the terrain and environment, and will be more able to continue important work once your expedition comes to an end.


8.     Do The Job Properly

Science expeditions might be unusual in that they generally entail just as much work after you return, as on the expedition itself. Build in the time (and money?) needed to write up all your hard work in the proper places. If your data sits in a desk draw gathering dust for the next five years, it’s no good to anyone.


9.     Be an Optimist

Most people have been saturated with bad news stories. A football-pitch-worth of rainforest lost per second, climbing CO2 emissions and the like. I try to deal in good news instead; it’s more fun and probably healthier. I think the public responds better to ‘big carrot, little stick’ than the other way around. So be ambitious and painfully, unreasonably optimistic. There’s plenty of time to become a cynic when you get old.


10.   Talk, Talk and Talk Some More

More important than any amount of science in the field, is who you tell about it on you return. Take the things you learned, throw in all your amusing (and occasionally horrifying) expedition anecdotes and weave a story. Share the highlights and the challenges; bring your beautiful little corner of the world to life and persuade them that it’s worth saving. Share it in classrooms, offices or down the pub, share it with anyone that will let you. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to go back.


Any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.


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