Increasing decision relevance of ecosystem service science


The ecosystem service (ES) community aspires to illuminate how nature contributes to human well-being, and thereby elevate consideration of nature in decision making. So far, however, policy impact of ES research has been limited. To understand why, we identify five key elements of ES research that help inform decisions by connecting the supply of ES to those who benefit from them. Our structured review of the ES literature reveals that only 13% of assessments included the full ES chain from place to value. Only 7% of assessments considered the distribution of ES benefits explicitly across demographic or other beneficiary groups (for example, private landowners versus the broader public), although disaggregation across regions or spatial units was more common (44%). Finally, crucial mediating factors that affect who benefits and how (for example, the vulnerability of beneficiaries or the availability of substitutes for ES) were considered in only 35% of assessments. Our results suggest that increasing the decision relevance of ES research requires more effectively predicting the impacts of specific decisions on the value and distribution of ES across beneficiary groups. Such efforts will need to integrate ecological models with socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of ES more closely than does the current ES literature.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual diagram illustrating how ES information can be integrated into decision-making processes.
Fig. 2: Relative frequency of chain types in ES assessments.
Fig. 3: Metrics used to quantify ES and methods used for monetary valuation.
Fig. 4: Disaggregation of ES benefits along key dimensions.
Fig. 5: Inclusion of mediating factors affecting delivery and value of ES benefits.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the Stanford Digital Repository at Source data are provided with this paper.


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This research was supported in part by the Scenarios Society and Solutions Research Coordination Network (grant no. NSF-DEB-13-38809), the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (430-2014-00861) and the Natural Capital Project–Stanford. We thank W. Bierbower for help with scripts for randomly selecting and downloading papers. We are grateful to E. Bennett, D. Guswa, K. Watson and the many Natural Capital Project members who provided helpful suggestions and feedback along the way.

Author information




All authors were involved in study conceptualization and design, and contributed to review and editing; A.L.V., A.S.-E., R.C.-K., B.E.R., G.M.V., J.D.G., J.A.J., J.R.S., L.J.S., L.L.B., L.M., M.G.E.M. and P.L.H. contributed to data collection; A.S.-E., L.M. and G.M.V. conducted the formal analyses; L.M. led project administration and supervision; A.S.-E. led data management and visualization; and L.M. and T.H.R. led the writing of the original draft.

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Correspondence to Analisa Shields-Estrada.

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Mandle, L., Shields-Estrada, A., Chaplin-Kramer, R. et al. Increasing decision relevance of ecosystem service science. Nat Sustain (2020).

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