Making research relevant? Ecological methods and the ecosystem services framework

Meredith Root-Bernstein, Fabián M. Jaksic
2017 Earth's Future  
We examine some unexpected epistemological conflicts that arise at the interfaces between ecological science, the ecosystem services framework, policy, and industry. We use an example from our own research to motivate and illustrate our main arguments, while also reviewing standard approaches to ecological science using the ecosystem services framework. While we agree that the ecosystem services framework has benefits in its industrial applications because it may force economic decision makers
more » ... ic decision makers to consider a broader range of costs and benefits than they would do otherwise, we find that many alignments of ecology with the ecosystem services framework are asking questions that are irrelevant to real-world applications, and generating data that does not serve real-world applications. We attempt to clarify why these problems arise and how to avoid them. We urge fellow ecologists to reflect on the kind of research that can lead to both scientific advances and applied relevance to society. In our view, traditional empirical approaches at landscape scales or with place-based emphases are necessary to provide applied knowledge for problem solving, which is needed once decision makers identify risks to ecosystem services. We conclude that the ecosystem services framework is a good policy tool when applied to decision-making contexts, but not a good theory either of social valuation or ecological interactions, and should not be treated as one. Plain Language Summary The ecosystem services framework is a policy tool that aims to help industrial actors and economic decision makers to appreciate the true costs of environmental destruction. In industry standards that incorporate ecosystem services, decision makers should consider the harms to a wide range of actors who may suffer if the ecosystems that they depend on are disrupted by a project. When used this way, the ecosystem services framework appears to be good and effective. However, in the rush to show that their research is relevant to society, and to attract funding, many ecologists have tried to use the ecosystem services framework as if it were a theory of ecological interactions and ecosystem functioning. We show how ecologists, including ourselves, have developed "hybrid" methods that mix traditional ecological science with an ecosystem services perspective. We have come to the conclusion, however, that these approaches often answer questions that are not relevant to applied contexts, and provide data that are not useful for solving real-world problems. These possible mistakes can be avoided, and we discuss approaches to make ecology useful to society without misusing the ecosystem services framework
doi:10.1002/2016ef000501 fatcat:qraqtuyy4rgazalulrhrp6dp3u