Research effort devoted to regulating and supporting ecosystem services by environmental scientists and economists

PLoS One. 2021 May 28;16(5):e0252463. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0252463. eCollection 2021.


The economic valuation of ecosystem services in part reflects the desire to use conventional economic tools (markets and economic instruments) to conserve ecosystem services. However, for regulating and supporting ecosystem services that depend on ecosystem structure and function, estimation of economic value requires estimates of the current level of underlying ecological functions first. This primary step is in principle, the job of environmental scientists, not economists. Here, we provide a coarse-level quantitative assessment of the relationship between the research effort expended by environmental scientists (on the biophysical values) and economists (on the monetary values) on 15 different regulating and supporting services in 32 ecosystem types using peer-reviewed article hits retrieved from bibliographic databases as a measure of research effort. We find a positive, moderately strong (r = 0.69) correlation between research efforts in the two domains, a result that, while encouraging, is likely to reflect serendipity rather than the deliberate design of integrated environmental science-economics research programs. Our results suggest that compared to environmental science research effort economic valuation is devoted to a smaller, less diverse set of ecosystem services but a broader, more diverse, set of ecosystem types. The two domains differed more with respect to the ecosystem services that are the major focus of research effort than they did with respect to the ecosystem types of principal research interest. For example, carbon sequestration, erosion regulation, and nutrient cycling receive more relative research effort in the environmental sciences; air quality regulation in economic valuations. For both domains, cultivated areas, wetlands, and urban/semi-urban ecosystem types received relatively large research effort, while arctic and mountain tundra, cave and subterranean, cryosphere, intertidal/littoral zone, and kelp forest ecosystem types received negligible research effort. We suggest ways and means by which the field of sustainability science may be improved by the design and implementation of a searchable database of environmental science and economic valuation literature as well as a global ecosystem service research network and repository that explicitly links research on the estimation and prediction of biophysical ecosystem functions with that of the social sciences and other knowledge systems. These suggestions would, at least in principle, facilitate a more efficient research agenda between economists and environmental scientists and aid management, regulatory and judicial decision-makers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Databases, Factual
  • Ecosystem*
  • Environmental Science
  • Peer Review, Research

Grants and funding

Both ANK and CSF were supported by Smart Prosperity Institute and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [ANK: PGSD2-534299-2019; CSF: RGPIN170399-2001]. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.