Thriving Earth Exchange: A Grand Challenge for Community Science

The American Geophysical Union tackles the urgent need for local solutions.

When an environmental problem occurs, no matter whether of natural or manmade origins, local leaders create local solutions. But what works for one community could be bad for neighboring communities, or bad for the larger ecosystem. Local problems need context-aware solutions. Finding them is wickedly difficult; community science can help.

Why Is Advancing Community Science So Important?

Around the world, environmental problems threaten the health and safety of communities. But institution-driven solutions often fall short, challenged by jurisdictions, lack of local knowledge, and lack of a common agenda among different actors. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) advocates instead for community science, which centers community priorities, respects their strengths, shares leadership, and advances equity. Community science is characterized by place-based knowledge, social learning, collective action, and empowerment. 

Communities’ environmental problems are unique, but their need is the same—scientific knowledge made local, affordable, and accessible, that propels effective solutions.

The AGU Steps Up

The AGU is one of the world's largest professional scientific organizations. Its 62,000 members include earth, atmospheric, ocean, hydrologic, space, and planetary scientists working in 144 countries. Originally, the AGU intended to model the community science approach by picking one issue, raising money, and funding its members to work on solving it. Conversations with internal and external thought leaders led to reframing that approach. 

AGU shifted to a multi-focal approach, working in communities to search for environmentally-friendly solutions to local problems. Chris McEntee, CEO of AGU from 2010 to 2020, directed strategy implementation.

In 2014, Chris led AGU to adopt a Grand Challenge, named the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), to tackle the urgent need for community-based science. A strategy team was assembled to develop an operational model. That team envisioned a platform bringing together three groups: community stakeholders, scientists with relevant specialized knowledge, and resources to pay for collaboration. This co-creation would be driven by local priorities, values, and goals. The outcome would be tangible local impact wherever projects took place.


Some examples of completed TEX projects include:

  • Long Island’s coastal communities have become increasingly vulnerable to flooding and erosion as the climate changes. The Living Shoreline project restored wetland habitat that serves as flood protection and a nature preserve.
  • Volcanic rock mining in Clark County, WA sends asbestos-like dust into area homes, increasing respiratory, cardiovascular, and cancer risks. AGU scientists helped the community learn to mitigate risk exposure and bring its needs to the forefront of policy- and decision-making.
  • Farmers and herders in Afghanistan's Pamir Mountains have used calendars based on historical climate cues for centuries. But climate change had reduced their accuracy, leading to reduced food production. TEX in partnership with MIT’s Climate Colab used both traditional and scientific knowledge to adapt the calendars, making them again useful tools to enhance food security and overall resilience.

To stand up the TEX initiative, AGU appointed a separate advisory board reporting to the AGU board. Champions are key to successful Grand Challenges: AGU populated the TEX advisory board with catalysts drawn from past board members who brought backgrounds in private sector industries, universities, and US governmental agencies. 

AGU contracted with a sister organization, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, for the services of a facilitator, which allowed TEX to begin its work without committing to hiring an employee. Raj Pandya took on the task. 

In its first phase, the TEX team operated as a “Skunkworks”—a startup empowered to make its own decisions, develop pilot projects and partnerships, and evolve based on what it learned. The team quickly learned that solutions alone weren’t enough. Communities didn't want disembodied experts telling them what they should do. Pandya said, “We realized that instead of our Grand Challenge being about a solution, it had to be about relationships that enabled solutions.” In other words, activating an ecosystem. 

Chris brought me in as the project was being conceived, and I stayed involved through its startup. We were able to build relationships inside stakeholders’ networks that led to solution development. “Seth accelerates progress in societal Grand Challenges by creating networks of groups and uniting them behind shared goals,” she said. 

The first handful of pilot projects inspired a careful process of one-on-one project scoping that would allow TEX to scale.  A Project Launch Workshop model developed by Pandya and the strategy team became the template for bringing together communities and scientists for a day to explore community priorities and scope local science projects. 

Over time, TEX brought together numerous partners to support more communities and spread the word about the impact of community-based science.  Among these are the National Council for Science and the Environment, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the National League of Cities, and The New Advisory Group. (All partner organizations are listed on the TEX website.) TEX continues to evolve as it builds a social movement for community science, based on an ecosystem of interrelated networks. Said Pandya, “Every time we think we’re getting good at what we're doing, we realize it was good enough to get us where we are but not good enough to take us forward.”


Initially, AGU funded the program from its Strategic Investments fund, setting a goal of 100 projects initiated by the time of the 2019 AGU Centennial. It achieved that goal.  “I’m pleased to say we reached 100 projects, but there’s been a lot of evolutions and adjustments along the way,” McEntee said. 

Community partners in Thriving Earth Exchange projects are responsible for finding their own funding. “We found we needed to work in communities that already had an infrastructure and process in place,” McEntee observed. In-kind support was crucial, starting with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which underwrote part of Pandya’s salary while he worked exclusively on the TEX Grand Challenge. In 2019 AGU received a significant grant from the Moore Foundation. AGU continues to fund a staff of four to support the Thriving Earth Exchange.


The Thriving Earth Exchange has succeeded in connecting AGU members’ knowledge of geoscience and its network of experts to affect local solutions. It has broadened its geographic area to include international communities. To measure the impact, AGU hired an independent evaluator to ask participating communities about their satisfaction with the value of project outcomes. One of the evaluation questions was about increased capacity to do community science projects in the future.  “The AGU found that over 80% of communities said that they would be more likely to reach out to a scientist in the future,” Pandya said. “They have more skill and more confidence that when they do reach out to scientists, they'll be able to get something of value.”

As of July 2022, Thriving Earth Exchange had launched over 170 projects, and over 80 have been completed. Over 17 million people are part of the communities impacted by these projects around the world. Its largest project helped a food distribution center that serves over 8 million people become more flood-resilient, while one of its smallest projects is helping to clean up a polluted pond in a town of 4,000.

Watch my 17-minute interview Chris McEntee about innovation and leadership here.

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL-it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

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