Women in Science: What does nature do for us?
Nature and the natural world have a special place in most people’s thoughts, so that asking a question like might seem almost insulting to nature. To even pose the question suggests treating nature as a commodity to be traded and offset against other commodities. That is of course absurd to most people; nature has intrinsic value, above and beyond any material value, and suggesting a measurable value diminishes it.
But the problem is that by not according any specific value to nature, or by suggesting that it has immeasurable value or even infinite value, it is easily forgotten in decision-making. In general, decisions about environmental management and land use are made on the basis of some kind of cost-benefit analysis and if it is not possible to measure or record its benefits, then nature may lose out. In fact we have a set of special systems for nature, setting aside areas for nature reserves, national parks and similar areas where particular wild species and habitats are left alone. These are essential, but are they enough? I don’t think so, and my soapbox on July 22nd was about why.
In future there will be greater pressures on the environment to sustain increasing number of people and their rapidly growing demands for resources. Yet many of the benefits that we get from nature, including fertile soils, clean air, protection from pests and diseases, freshwater, waste decomposition, climate regulation and many more, are not usually part of decisions about land use.
These benefits, sometimes called ecosystem services, were first documented in the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 which showed that most such ecosystem services were already depleted or over-used. A similar assessment for the UK, the UK NEA (the UK National Ecosystem Assessment) reported its findings in June this year. The report reviewed the state of the UK’s major habitat types and the ecosystem services that they support. As with the global analysis, in the UK there are many deteriorating ecosystem services, and the trends mostly go in the wrong direction.
But the UK NEA also shows that it is possible to make better decisions if all the many different values of ecosystems are included in decision-making. Moving to a system where ecosystems are managed for multiple services will benefit everyone, and it is not impossible to do. The valuation is needed to support better decisions. It does not have to be monetary and it is certainly not done to commodify nature – actually the reverse.
The work for the UK NEA revealed many gaps in our understanding of both the basic ecological processes underpinning these vital services and in methods for assessing them now and in the future, and this is becoming an area of active research involving ecologists, economists, land use managers and decision-makers. My research has been concentrated on conservation of species and natural habitats. The ecosystem services work is a necessary corollary to wildlife conservation – nature has its own systems support mechanisms, and we need to work with them, not against them, if we are to secure a future for ourselves and the many other species that we share the planet with.
I’ve been very lucky to have been involved in this kind of research. The research itself is stimulating and getting results is rewarding. I’ve done a lot of my research collaboratively, working with people that have complementary interests and skills – these problems are much too broad-ranging for solitary academic pursuit! So, what I have spent most of my time on over the past couple of weeks?
There are new funding calls from UK research councils, to design research programmes around the valuation of nature and natural resources, and to develop and bid for funding for projects that will help us to understand the role of biodiversity in ecosystem services. Both topics of great interest to me. Writing grant applications is the core business of a research scientist. It is not my favourite occupation, but I really do enjoy the early stages – working with other researchers to frame the questions to answer, designing the research to be undertaken, envisaging the results that might flow, and considering the consequences of the work.
The detailed work that follows can be a grounding in reality and an grinding down of great ideas, but the early stages that we have been working on over the past couple of weeks are truly exciting. We have a long way to go yet, writing a grant proposal, fitting it to a budget, competing with other teams, then hopefully starting the project, running the research, analysing the results and writing up the work – probably more than a 5 year schedule. Perhaps by 2020 we will have some better tools for good environmental decisions. That’s certainly not too long to wait.
Professor Georgina Mace is a Professor of Conservation Science at Imperial College London
She is working with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science. www.womeninscience.co.ukTagged in: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, nature, science, UK NEA
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