Tropical forests are the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. While better understanding of these forests is critical for our collective future, until quite recently efforts to measure and monitor them have been largely disconnected. Networking is essential to discover the answers to questions that transcend borders and the horizons of funding agencies. Here we show how a global community is responding to the challenges of tropical ecosystem research with diverse teams measuring forests tree-by-tree in thousands of long-term plots. We review the major scientific discoveries of this work and show how this process is changing tropical forest science. Our core approach involves linking long-term grassroots initiatives with standardized protocols and data management to generate robust scaled-up results. By connecting tropical researchers and elevating their status, our Social Research Network model recognises the key role of the data originator in scientific discovery. Conceived in 1999 with RAINFOR (South America), our permanent plot networks have been adapted to Africa (AfriTRON) and Southeast Asia (T-FORCES) and widely emulated worldwide. Now these multiple initiatives are integrated via ForestPlots.net cyber-infrastructure, linking colleagues from 54 countries across 24 plot networks. Collectively these are transforming understanding of tropical forests and their biospheric role. Together we have discovered how, where and why forest carbon and biodiversity are responding to climate change, and how they feedback on it. This long-term pan-tropical collaboration has revealed a large long-term carbon sink and its trends, as well as making clear which drivers are most important, which forest processes are affected, where they are changing, what the lags are, and the likely future responses of tropical forests as the climate continues to change. By leveraging a remarkably old technology, plot networks are sparking a very modern revolution in tropical forest science. In the future, humanity can benefit greatly by nurturing the grassroots communities now collectively capable of generating unique, long-term understanding of Earth’s most precious forests.