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Priority research areas for ecosystem services in a changing world

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1. Ecosystem services are the benefits humans obtain from ecosystems. The importance of research into ecosystem services has been widely recognized, and rapid progress is being made. However, the prevailing approach to quantifying ecosystem services is still based on static analyses and single services, ignoring system dynamics, uncertainty and feedbacks. This is not only partly due to a lack of mechanistic understanding of processes and a dearth of empirical data, but also due to a failure to engage fully with the interdisciplinarity of the problem.

2. We argue that there is a tendency to ignore the feedbacks between and within both social and ecological systems, and a lack of explicit consideration of uncertainty. Metrics need to be developed that can predict thresholds, which requires strong linkages to underlying processes, while the development of policy for management of ecosystem services needs to be based on a broader understanding of value and drivers of human well-being.

3. We highlight the complexities, gaps in current knowledge and research, and the potentially promising avenues for future investigation in four priority research areas: agendas, processes, metrics and uncertainty.

4.Synthesis and applications. The research interest in the field of ecosystem services is rapidly expanding, and can contribute significantly to the sustainable management of natural resources. However, a narrow disciplinary approach, or an approach which does not consider feedbacks within and between ecological and social systems, has the potential to produce dangerously misleading policy recommendations. In contrast, if we explicitly acknowledge and address uncertainties and complexities in the provision of ecosystem services, progress may appear slower but our models will be substantially more robust and informative about the effects of environmental change.
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Keywords: ecological thresholds; human well-being; natural resource management; social–ecological systems; uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK 2: Department of Geography & Environment and Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics & Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK 3: Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College, London SW7 2AZ, UK 4: Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London, Buckhurst Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PY, UK 5: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Les Augrès Manor, Trinity, Jersey JE3 5BP, UK 6: Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK 7: School of the Environment and Natural Resources, Bangor University, Bangor LL57 2UW, UK 8: NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, London SL5 7PY, UK 9: Imperial College Business School, Imperial College London, South Kensington campus, London SW7 2AZ, UK 10: Natural Environment Research Council, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1EU, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2009

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