The study codes for areas of focus of ecosystem services (ES) studies, which correspond to the five expectations (E1-5), overlaid on a graphical representation of how ES research might inform decisions (edited from Chan et al. (2012a), based on Daily et al. (2009); arrows depict influence relationships). The six coding categories shown in italics are not mutually exclusive: Biophysical (green)—investigating biophysical dynamics underpinning ES; Valuation (blue)—characterizing ES values in some manner (including subcodes marginal, total, monetary and non-monetary); Valuation & Biophysical (purple arrow)—characterizing biophysical dynamics and linked ES values; Social (pink)—characterizing social dynamics underpinning ES; and Policy (aqua)—characterizing the effects or design of programs and policies on/for ES (subcodes equity and efficacy); and Values as Drivers (orange)—characterizing values as affecting other elements of the system. Not shown is Qualitative Social Sciences and Humanities, which pertained to methodological approach and could apply to any area of focus (see text of article).

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At the heart of global sustainability efforts is the field of ecosystem services—nature’s many invaluable contributions to humanity. But to deliver knowledge about values, which is needed to guide decisions, ecosystem services research needs to integrate ecological research with information about social values, including access to and demand for the benefits that nature provides.

This paper finds that although the field of ecosystem services initially lacked much social or policy research, these elements have increased substantially in recent years. However, there is still very little research that attempts to put a value (monetary or otherwise) on changes in ecological benefits, although the values of changes are central to the field of ecosystem services. The field has thus matured somewhat, but more progress is needed for ecosystem services to contribute meaningfully to sustainability and improved decisions about nature.