Political Scientist Jon Miller’s research on scientific literacy suggests that less than one third of Americans know that DNA is a basic genetic building block of life (rather than the Drug and Narcotics Agency as suggested by some who were surveyed), and that about half know that the earth orbits around the sun (and not vice versa). If this is true, what is their level of appreciation about the importance of pollination to human nutrition and food supply, or the value of other ecosystem services to human well-being?
Many people understand that degradation of nature can have negative impacts on human well-being. However, the true value of ecosystem services to human well-being—and the features and functions of these services that are substitutable versus irreplaceable by technology or engineering—are not well understood. This uncertainty can come between the research findings and public perception or understanding of these findings; resulting in a public that is not prepared to implement policy and practical changes that will reverse the decline in ecosystem services, or protect their future.
The research areas of measurement, modeling, remote sensing, mapping, scale-free networking, and complex adaptive systems have improved the public’s understanding of a wide-range of issues from human brain activity and biological processes to social networks and weather prediction. What tools could be used to improve the public’s understanding of the interaction between ecosystem services and human well-being? How can they be used across different time and space scales to provide real-time understanding of these interactions, and to better elucidate the benefits of
ecosystem services to a public audience? Exploring the application of these research areas in the context of ecosystem services could help to advance the public’s appreciation of ecosystem services, so that they are able to engage in the practical and policy decisions that will be required to chart a path toward sustainability in the next 50 years.
• What do we know about the American public’s appreciation of ecosystem services? What is the difference between the aspects of ecosystem services that are appreciated by the public versus those that are less appreciated?
• What marketed or nonmarketed ecosystem service can be valued, either qualitatively or quantitatively, in a tangible way—providing “today’s” value and the value for future generations? What is the appropriate scale and timeline for such valuation?
• What ecosystem services are most ripe (i.e., we “know what we know” and “we know what we don’t know”) for developing methods to measure, map, and model, so that the public can better understand the effects of human behavior and policy on the services, and the resulting effects on these services to human well-being? How can these methods be used to develop interactive applications to engage the general public and improve their understanding of ecosystem services?
• How can remote sensing technology be used to develop applications that provide synchronous understanding of the effects of human behavior and policy on ecosystem services to engage the general public and improve their understanding of ecosystem services?
• The “general public” consists of a diverse group of constituents with varying levels of appreciation for ecosystem services, and there are many strategies to address each of these audiences. Which “audience(s)” (e.g., k-12 students, parents, the voting public, policy makers, iPod users, others?) would provide the greatest cost-benefit for an initial program to increase their appreciation of the basic principles of ecosystem services? Do we start with people who already have an appreciation for nature, or is there a better starting audience?
• What are the most cost-effective strategies to increase the selected audience(s) appreciation of the basic principles of ecosystem services?
—Citizen science led to the creation of the National Weather Service and has been defined as “projects or ongoing scientific work in which
individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement, or computation.” How can citizen science be used to engage the general public and improve their understanding of ecosystem services?
— The NAKFI conference will focus on nine aspects of ecosystem services, plus a host of other ideas that are generated during the poster sessions and other conversations among participants. Summaries of these think-tank discussions will be published by the National Academies Press, and grants will be awarded on a competitive basis for new ideas that are generated by the conference. How can these tools be utilized to support a public awareness program?
— What are the roles scientists, engineers, and institutions in strategies to increase the public’s appreciation of ecosystem services?
— How can the interactive, end-user applications identified above be transformed into mass-scale tools such as iPhone applications, video or board games (Game of Life concept), museum exhibits, online tools, etc., to increase the selected audience(s) appreciation of ecosystem services?
— Other strategies?
• Or, is it even worth the effort to try to “increase the selected audience(s) appreciation of the basic principles of ecosystem services?” given recent statistics about the American public’s scientific literacy of general topics (see first paragraph of the challenge summary). For example, will we make more progress in conserving a watershed by educating people and decision-makers about the ecosystem services that it provides for water quantity and quality, or simply by building on the known popularity of protecting open space and maintaining recreational opportunities? Or, are behaviors that maintain ecosystem services best achieved by direct incentives or regulations, such as payments for ecosystem system services, taxes on activities that diminish ecosystem services, zoning and so forth?
Ashlin A and Ladle RJ. Environmental science adrift in the blogosphere. Science 2006;312(5771):201.
Clough GW. Increasing scientific literacy: a shared responsibility. Smithsonian Institution; Washington, DC, 2010.
Kennedy D and Overholser G, eds. Science and the media. American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Cambridge, MA, 2010.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Overview of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005.
Nixon R. Slow violence and environmental storytelling. Nieman Storyboard June 11, 2011; website: http://www.neimanstoryboard.org.
Science Daily. US public’s knowledge of science: getting better but a long way to go, study finds. Science Daily: 17 Feb 2011.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS
• Will Bourne, Semi-Linear LLC
• Cassandra M. Brooks, Independent/Freelance
• Sally Brown, University of Washington
• Kee Chan, Boston University
• Valerie J. Fuchs, MWH Global
• Kimberly A. Gray, Northwestern University
• Steven N. Handel, Rutgers University
• Gerhard Klimeck, Purdue University
• Richard G. Lathrop, Rutgers University
• Davis L. Masten, Stanford University
• John D. Rummel, East Carolina University
• Christina B. Sumners, Texas A&M University
IDR TEAM SUMMARY
Christina Sumners, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Texas A&M University
IDR Team 9 was asked to develop a program that increases the American public’s appreciation of the basic principles of ecosystem services. The team began by deciding to define ecosystem services as the ones listed in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Manual for Cities. This guide lists seventeen services divided into four categories: provisioning, regulating, habitat or supporting, and cultural services. The IDR Team also concluded that ecosystem services—conceived here as processes and connected cycles—are distinct from natural resources, which are discrete objects that nature provides. In this way, its definition is somewhat different from that of other IDR teams.
Do We Even Need to Improve the Public’s Appreciation?
According to research, at some level, a fair number of people (90% by some measures) already value ecosystem services. However, most Americans don’t connect with the term itself. When asked, many think it means some sort of cleanup—or servicing—of the ecosystem. Is this a problem?
One of the members of the team, in reference to ecosystem services, said, “the term is soul destroying.” However, everyone agreed that the public doesn’t need to respond to or even understand the meaning of “ecosystem services.” The important thing is getting people to engage with the principles behind the term. Thus, there needs to be a rebranding of the concept, perhaps with the phrase “nature’s benefits,” which people surveyed seemed to like better.
The group decided that just appreciating ecosystem services and their benefits to human and environmental health is not enough if the public does not behave accordingly. Therefore, the real problem is how to create a systematic change in people’s behavior to preserve or augment ecosystem services (or at least not undermine them). People have a general sense of what they could or should be doing—conserving, recycling, etc.—and many have the desire to act. However, there needs to be a unified push to give them specific tools and to show them what individuals can do to participate and where their principles can be applied. This is important in a political system such as ours, because educating the voting public can help give politicians the will to make certain difficult choices.
IDR Team 9 thinks an understanding of the basics of communication is essential to developing any sort of program designed to reach the public. One of the first steps, everyone agreed, should involve listening. Understanding people’s current thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs would help frame the subsequent communication in a much more relevant way. Some team members advocated for a three-step communications strategy: get the atten-
tion of the public, pique their interest, and then deliver the message after they are more responsive to it. Others suggested a more formal, pyramid-style approach, with goals, specific audiences, framing, and messages. One thing everyone agreed is vitally important, regardless of the specific plan, is making hidden connections visible. Many people think we no longer depend on nature, now that we live in such a technology-laden world. To convince people to the contrary, it will be important to keep repeating that message and to refine it over time.
The team debated potential communication tactics. For example, games can be an excellent way to keep the message alive and deepen understanding of the importance of ecosystem services, perhaps without the audience even noticing a communications objective. More explicit messages could also work: someone suggested that an effective ad would state that the ecosystem is working for us and we’re not paying it. Others suggested using tangible guides for progress in preserving ecosystem services. For example, one group member noted that Stockholm has a sculpture by its train station that shows visually, through lights, how healthy the city is.
Timing can also be important. People can be most open to behavioral change after a disaster, and if the message is that ecosystem services might help prevent the next flood or hurricane, there could probably be no better time to tell people.
Audiences: what do they value?
The American public is a heterogeneous group of audiences, including both groups and individuals. The groups include major institutions, such as governments (local, state, and national), schools (primary, secondary, and university-level), corporations, foundations, and the media. Smaller groups, such as religious, or artistic, or athletic communities should have targeted messages as well. For example, faith-based leaders are increasingly interested in conservation as a way to honor God’s creation. Finally, there is the general public, which can itself be split up into infinite numbers of other audiences (by age, gender, geography, etc.), who all have different interests.
What are the motives for people to engage this issue?
The group suggested that people’s motivations for preserving ecosystem services fall into two categories: self-interest (usually in the form of money or health) and principles (romantic ideals about preserving nature). Of
these, it is probably safe to say that self-interest is the more powerful; in fact, the ecosystem services model was designed to explicitly tap into people’s understanding of a good cost/benefit ratio. People listen when the message is that ecosystems save them money. Nearly as strong, though, is the desire to be safe and healthy, which means having food, clean water, medicine—all of which are linked to ecosystem services. Other self-interested motives, such as preserving a forest because it offers good camping or wanting clean water supporting lots of fish for fishing also come into play.
Drinking Water: An Example
To illustrate some of what they would like to accomplish, IDR Team 9 decided to use clean drinking water as an example. The reasoning was simple: people understand the importance of having clean water to drink. At the time of the meeting, 2,230,714 people were fans of a Facebook page for “Drinking” (and no, the page refers specifically to water, not alcohol!) Some would say that sanitary water is the greatest public health contribution of the twentieth century. Corporations have begun to recognize water’s importance as well; one of the group members pointed out a recent article in the New York Times describing Levi Strauss’ efforts to make (and sell) jeans that use less water in the manufacturing process.
Using the TEEB Manual for Cities as a guide, the team noted that ecosystems provide drinking water through precipitation (and other parts of the flow of the water cycle, such as evaporation), storage (in groundwater and fresh bodies of water), and purification (primarily through soil filtration). Humans can affect these processes through agriculture (which uses water that might otherwise be available for drinking), industrialization (which causes pollution), and energy production (which can sometimes have an effect on water storage systems, such as rivers used for hydroelectricity).
Although much of this information seems like the subject of an elementary school science lesson, the group brainstormed ways to give people a more intuitive understanding of how they can affect their own clean water supply. A few of the ideas:
• Geolocation apps, in which messages pop up on a mobile device when the user enters a particular watershed, for example
• Incorporating water use into Farmville and other popular online games
• Technology that lets individuals measure their own water use
• Illustrations of water quality in one’s community
• Rainwater cisterns at schools to give children a tangible example of water storage
Plan: The NAS PlanetWorks Conference
IDR Team 9 decided that it did not have the necessary skills and connections to create an effective public awareness campaign. However, they—together with NAS—might be able to get a group of influential people together to do so. These individuals would ideally be those with power, contacts, and skills in a variety of fields—people who wouldn’t normally work together, coming together to create new, large concepts for action. Such groups might include professional communicators and media consultants; Hollywood producers and directors; foundations, funders, and other philanthropists; behavioral psychologists; economists; government representatives; bloggers; game and app designers; and even celebrities (who could help turn the meeting into an event worthy of press coverage).
The group proposed (pending the approval of the National Academies) the name NAS Planetworks Conference for this gathering, which might also include smaller subsequent meetings for particular groups. These smaller groups might take the form of partnerships—the pairing of one group or individual doing something well with another individual group who would like to learn from their successes. Other partnerships could be between those with different skills but similar goals.
The team imagined the participants each going back to their communities armed with a replicable, scalable toolkit—including contacts, core concepts, and media tools—that could be distributed across different contexts, hopefully leading to a viral network effect of continuing action.