Biggest Environmental Knowledge Gap: Human Ecosystem
Knowledge gaps continue to hobble scientists’ assessments of the
environment, a Michigan State University researcher and colleagues warn. Their warning follows sobering
conclusions drawn from what they do know and could help set the global agenda for research funding in the
years to come.
A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted
hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide
humanity, said Thomas Dietz, director of the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program and professor in
sociology and crop and soil sciences. The MEA found about 60 percent of ecosystem services supporting life -
including fresh water, fisheries, clean air, pests and climate - are being degraded or used unsustainably.
The MEA projected continued deterioration at current rates.
But drawing conclusions is still limited by what researchers
call discipline-bound approaches that don’t fully describe the range of the Earth’s dynamic and complex
biophysical and social systems.
“In only a few cases are the abilities of ecosystems to provide
human well-being holding steady, and in almost every case we’re seeing declines in ecosystems underpinning
human well-being,” said Dietz, who was involved in the original MEA.
Many view that assessment as a baseline for analyzing climate
change, Dietz said, although that was not the purpose of the report. He and fellow scientists are set to
publish what amounts to a post-MEA gap analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
“The conclusion that things are getting worse in general comes
out of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” he said. “Our job was to say ‘OK, what science do we need to
Among the biggest knowledge gaps Dietz and colleagues found, he
said, is “really thinking seriously about the interaction between humans and ecosystems, back and forth. How
are we changing ecosystems and how are ecosystems affecting us?”
Probing such questions suggests a larger role for MSU, Dietz
said, given its strengths in researching coupled human and natural systems.
The lack of long-term ecosystem monitoring and data collection
is another deficiency the world scientific and policy communities must address, Dietz and colleagues wrote.
Research tends to be underwritten for maybe three years, but data needs, in many cases, to span decades to be
of greatest value.
On the other end of the spectrum, addressing abrupt ecosystem
changes - “those are the scary things” - and developing early warning systems also are challenges confronting
scientists and the policymakers.
Recommendations such as those made by
Dietz’s group tend to carry weight when national science agencies make research funding decisions, he said.
Ecosystem change might sound like an academic subject to many in the developed world, he said, but “for an awful
lot of people around the world, the functioning of the ecosystem is right in their front yard and at their water
Dietz ( MSU
professor of sociology and crop and soil sciences and director of the university's Environmental Science and Policy
Program) is vice-chairperson of the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change for the National Academies’
“America’s Climate Choices” study commissioned by the U.S. Congress. He published his paper with collaborators
Stephen R. Carpenter, Harold A. Mooney, John Agard, Doris Capistrano, Ruth S. DeFries, Sandra Díaz, Anantha K.
Duraiappah, Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, Henrique Miguel Pereira, Charles Perrings, Walter V. Reid, Jose´ Sarukhan, Robert
J. Scholes and Anne Whyte.