In this post Kai Chan and Terre Satterfield discuss the evolution of ecosystem services research and what it next has in store. Read more in their new research in People and Nature ‘The maturation of ecosystem services: Social and policy research expands, but whither biophysically informed valuation?

Over the span of three decades, ecosystem services research has gone from a twinkle in an eye to a dominant way of viewing human-nature relationships and the many constituent ecological and social benefits and consequences that might follow. That twinkle is today a prominent international science-policy platform (IPBES) with increasing conduits for ecosystem services research into decision-making at all scales in many nations. But is there a broad base of appropriate research to support just and effective decision-making? And has the field really benefited from central ideas across the natural and social sciences?

The meteoric rise in research on ecosystem services.

For the two of us, notions of ‘just and effective decision-making’ collided as we got to know one another—a biophysically- and philosophically-trained ecosystem-services insider (Kai) and a socially-trained qualitative and quantitative scholar of values, culture, risk, and decision analysis (Terre). Over 15 years of research, supervision and teaching together on these and related topics, a notion emerged in our minds of biophysically and socially informed valuation and decision-making, which structured our contributions to the study of ecosystem services as they include cultural considerationse.g.,1,2,3,4. And yet our hope for a full integration of these ideas was often met by a rebranding of ecology as services, or values as dollars, with the rest on the cutting room floor, so to speak. On this basis, we have long argued that certain kinds of research are needed to support the social-ecologically informed decision-making sought by IPBES and the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity.

Nine years ago, we started investigating if the needed base of research existed via a long-running analysis just published5. We realized that looking only at best practice—the thought-leadership—was not enough. Integrating ecosystem services into decision-making everywhere requires much more than a handful of appropriate studies, and sometimes a profound gap separates best practice and broad practice.

A prominent example that was already on our radar was that there were still dozens of papers being published reusing values from a wholesale monetary valuation of the world’s ecosystem services. This study, led by Bob Costanza6, used a widely critiqued ‘total valuation’ approach, as if the alternative to the status quo was total ecosystem annihilation. Such total valuation can be useful for raising awareness, but not for informing real-world decisions. And yet the papers kept emerging.

So what is best practice, and is broad practice keeping pace? We broke this down into five broad categories: (1) Is valuation grounded in realistic biophysical change? (2) Is there a healthy balance of monetary and non-monetary valuation? (3) Is there social research on the nature and change of access and demand for ecosystem services? (4) Is ecosystem services research addressing the place-based needs of policy and practice? (5) Is it including qualitative research from the social sciences and humanities, and considering values in any sense beyond the instrumental?

The answers began to take on additional significance as this nine-year study unfolded, and we added new time periods to our analysis, with the emergence of the concept of nature’s contributions to people (NCP)7,8. Although NCP emerged as an umbrella term for science-policy purposes, some seemed to argue that we ought to abandon the ‘ecosystem services’ term due to its baggage and inherent limitations. In effect, they argued that the answers to our five questions about good broad practice were universally ‘no’.

But the answers were both no and yes. In the time periods ending in 2012 and 2015, only a small or tiny fraction of research aligned with best practice on the five fronts. In the final period (up to the end of 2017, which avoided complications associated with the potentially competing term NCP), finally there was a marked improvement. Valuation was still not usually grounded in realistic biophysical change (1), but there was an impressive balance of monetary and non-monetary valuation (2). Albeit from tiny beginnings, there was an impressive rise of social research (3). Only a small proportion of studies examined the effectiveness of policy, but an increasing number characterized biophysical processes relevant for services (4). And from virtual absence, we observed marked turns toward equity considerations, insights from the qualitative social sciences and humanities, and considering values as more just than the outputs of valuation (5).

Why? Why so little progress for years, and then an apparent breakthrough? It takes time for good ideas to spread and bad ones to die out. Ecosystem services research was growing exponentially until the final time period, whereupon the rise appears more linear. Good practice was spreading, but initially it was swamped by the growth of simplistic and superficial analyses, when ecosystem services was such a hot new idea that any link to it was accepted.

Our expectations for ecosystem services research, if it were responsive to critique.

We clearly still don’t have all the research we need to support humanity’s reliance on the biosphere into the future. This is partly because on many fronts of the best practice we examined, good examples are still rare. Beyond that, it’s also because it is now clear that protecting human and non-human life on Earth requires more than good decision-making at the margins, but rather transformative change9,10,11. And this transformative change will require separate study, for example of the levers and leverage points in complex social and social-ecological systems12,13.


  1. Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). “Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values.” Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.
  2. Chan, K. M. A., A. Guerry, P. Balvanera, S. Klain, T. Satterfield, X. Basurto, A. Bostrom, R. Chuenpagdee, R. Gould, B. S. Halpern, N. Hannahs, J. Levine, B. Norton, M. Ruckelshaus, R. Russell, J. Tam and U. Woodside (2012). “Where are ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ in ecosystem services: A framework for constructive engagement.” BioScience 6(8): 744-756.
  3. Satterfield, T., R. Gregory, S. Klain, M. Roberts and K. M. Chan (2013). “Culture, intangibles and metrics in environmental management.” Journal of Environmental Management 117: 103-114.
  4. Chan, K. M. A. and T. Satterfield (2016). Managing cultural ecosystem services for sustainability. Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services. M. Potschin, R. Haines-Young, R. Fish and R. K. Turner. London and New York, Routledge: 343-358.
  5. Chan, K. M. A. and T. Satterfield (2020). “The maturation of ecosystem services: Social and policy research expands, but whither biophysically-informed valuation?” People and Nature.
  6. Costanza, R., R. d’Arge, R. de Groot, S. Farber, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, R. V. O’Neill, J. Paruelo, R. G. Raskin, P. Sutton and M. van den Belt (1997). “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.” Nature 387(15 May 1997): 253-260.
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  8. Díaz, S., U. Pascual, M. Stenseke, B. Martín-López, R. T. Watson, Z. Molnár, R. Hill, K. M. A. Chan, I. A. Baste, K. A. Brauman, S. Polasky, A. Church, M. Lonsdale, A. Larigauderie, P. W. Leadley, A. P. E. van Oudenhoven, F. van der Plaat, M. Schröter, S. Lavorel, Y. Aumeeruddy-Thomas, E. Bukvareva, K. Davies, S. Demissew, G. Erpul, P. Failler, C. A. Guerra, C. L. Hewitt, H. Keune, S. Lindley and Y. Shirayama (2018). “Assessing nature’s contributions to people.” Science 359(6373): 270-272.
  9. IPBES (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. Brondízio et al. Bonn, Germany, IPBES Secretariat.
  10. IPBES (2019). Global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn, Germany, IPBES Secretariat.
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  12. Chan, K. M. A., J. Agard, J. Liu, A. P. D. d. Aguiar, D. Armenteras, A. K. Boedhihartono, W. W. L. Cheung, S. Hashimoto, G. C. H. Pedraza, T. Hickler, J. Jetzkowitz, M. Kok, M. Murray-Hudson, P. O’Farrell, T. Satterfield, A. K. Saysel, R. Seppelt, B. Strassburg, D. Xue, O. Selomane, L. Balint and A. Mohamed (2019). Pathways towards a sustainable future. Global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondízio, J. Settele, S. Díaz and H. Ngo. Bonn, Germany, IPBES.
  13. Chan, K. M. A., D. R. Boyd, R. K. Gould, J. Jetzkowitz, J. Liu, B. Muraca, R. Naidoo, P. Olmsted, T. Satterfield, O. Selomane, G. G. Singh, R. Sumaila, H. T. Ngo, A. K. Boedhihartono, J. Agard, A. P. D. d. Aguiar, D. Armenteras, L. Balint, C. Barrington-Leigh, W. W. L. Cheung, S. Díaz, J. Driscoll, K. Esler, H. Eyster, E. J. Gregr, S. Hashimoto, G. C. H. Pedraza, T. Hickler, M. Kok, T. Lazarova, A. A. A. Mohamed, M. Murray-Hudson, P. O’Farrell, I. Palomo, A. K. Saysel, R. Seppelt, J. Settele, B. Strassburg, D. Xue and E. S. Brondízio (2020). “Levers and leverage points for pathways to sustainability.” People and Nature.