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Ecological science for a crowded planet

The Ecological Society of America unveils action plan for 21st century

Ecological Society of America

Ecologists must take their science in bold new directions if humans and the natural systems on which they depend are to coexist in the future. So states the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) just-released action plan, "Ecological Science and Sustainability for a Crowded Planet." Prepared by a 20-member ESA committee at the request of the Society's Governing Board, the report (web link) calls for greater use of ecological science in decision-making, research targeted at sustainability of a human-dominated Earth, and cultural changes within ecology.

"In 2002, the Governing Board asked the committee to develop a plan that would guide both the Ecological Society of America, as well as the science itself in addressing the growing number of environmental challenges we face globally," says William Schlesinger, ESA President.

"This report is the outcome of many hours of deliberations, debates and discussions, which also included participation of the Society's 8,000 members, as well as colleagues with other scientific societies, government agencies, industry, and non-governmental organizations."

In particular, the report includes the following recommendations:

  • integrate advances in ecological knowledge into policy and management
  • foster an ecologically knowledgeable public today and in future generations
  • build the intellectual and technical infrastructure for ecology
  • promote sharing and access to ecological data
  • forge international linkages and globalize access to ecological knowledge

"We really worked to come up with specific actions that we hope will ultimately result in strong regional and global partnerships to create a more sustainable future," says Margaret Palmer, of the University of Maryland and Chair of the committee. "Creating a public that understands humanity's dependence on natural systems is critical. Without that, even the best science in the world will not take us far enough."

In addition, Palmer points out that the committee felt strongly that the central goal of ecology must become understanding how ecosystems function in all of their aspects, with an underlying aim of helping to sustain humans and the ecological services that support them. Targeted efforts must especially focus on sustainability of water resources and problems associated with the growth of urbanized areas. Moreover, the group urged increased collaboration among ecologists, social scientists, policy-makers, and practitioners.

Complementing the ESA's action plan is an article, "Ecology for a crowded planet" also prepared by the committee, which appears in this week's Science. Palmer explains that the article lays out the intellectual framework for the ESA action plan, calling for a research agenda focused on ecosystem services and the science of ecological restoration and design. Noting that sustaining a projected "extended human family of 8-11 billion people will be difficult at best," the article proposes that questions such as which ecological services are irreplaceable, which habitats are critical in providing such services, and how to combine ecological principles with new technology to design ecosystems that can deliver key services, must be addressed now.

Over 10 years ago, the Society unveiled "The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative: An Ecological Research Agenda." That document, which has influenced and informed much of the Society's efforts since 1991, identified and prioritized critical research questions. In contrast, this latest ESA report will serve to crystallize the Society's activities in research, education, and policy, according to President-Elect Jerry Melillo.

Over the coming months, he and other Governing Board members will further discuss the action plan and will decide which specific actions the Society should immediately implement. These will be announced during ESA's Annual Meeting in August 2004.

"I am personally very excited that my tenure as ESA President will dovetail with the Society launching these new initiatives," said Melillo.

Committee Members:

Margaret Palmer Chair University of Maryland
Emily Bernhardt Duke University
Elizabeth Chornesky Freelance Consultant
Scott Collins University of New Mexico
Andrew Dobson Princeton University
Clifford Duke Ecological Society of America
Barry Gold David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Robert Jacobson U.S. Geological Survey
Sharon Kingsland Johns Hopkins University
Rhonda Kranz Ecological Society of America
Michael Mappin University of Calgary
Luisa Martinez Instituto de Ecologia
Fiorenza Micheli Stanford University
Jennifer Morse University of Maryland
Michael Pace Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Mercedes Pascual University of Michigan
Stephen Palumbi Stanford University
O.J. Reichman University of California, Santa Barbara
Alan Townsend University of Colorado, Boulder
Monica Turner University of Wisconsin, Madison


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