Towards decision-relevant ecosystem service science

Distilling lessons from the ecosystem services literature to better bridge the gap between research and action

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In the 15 years since the release of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the concept of ecosystem services – the diverse ways nature contributes to human well-being – has ignited extensive scientific research (well over 10,000 papers!) and spurred demand from governments, businesses and multilateral organizations. Simultaneously, the rapid progression of the climate crisis and ongoing loss of biodiversity has amplified calls for incorporating ecosystem service science into policy and action. 

However, as ecosystem service researchers, we were aware that a substantial gap existed between our desire to inform decisions, the eagerness of decision makers for this kind of information, and the current use of ecosystem services information in practice. We wondered whether we could distill key lessons from our research community’s extensive efforts to understand how we might be able to achieve greater impact with our own work and hopefully inspire other researchers to do the same.

In our new study in Nature Sustainability, we tackled this challenge with a structured review of a thousand papers from the ecosystem services literature. Embarking on this effort, our group quickly realized that although many of us had already worked together over the years, we were still using the same terms in different ways. For instance, the question of whether a duck (as in the bird) should count as an ecosystem service led to more than an afternoon’s worth of impassioned debate. Agreeing on shared definitions was an unexpected, but crucial, first step in our effort. 

Ultimately, the process of reviewing papers, analyzing and then interpreting our results as a group helped to crystalize our own understanding of critical dimensions of ecosystem services research. We discovered that studies could reach the same endpoint in a greater variety of ways than we’d expected, and that the pathway for getting there was at least as important as the endpoint being measured when it comes to the potential for informing decisions. 

Our findings reinforced our belief that as ecosystem service researchers, our work will benefit from collaboration with experts from a wider range of disciplines. Continuing to work directly with those whose decisions directly affect ecosystem services and those who rely on ecosystem services is also vital. If we want our work to have impact, we need to put people front and center. By doing these things, we can better represent the values of ecosystem services in a meaningful and decision-relevant way. 

The need for decision- and policy-relevant ecosystem services research remains urgent. Our study highlights the need for ecosystem services research to make people and their varied needs a core consideration. Ignoring this element of ecosystem services risks exacerbating existing racial and social inequalities. To effectively preserve biodiversity and fight climate change in an equitable and inclusive way, we must increase the decision relevance of a field at the heart of the people-nature connection.  

Lisa Mandle

Lead Scientist, Natural Capital Project, Stanford University

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