Re-thinking the nexus between science and society: Guiding principles for the new biodiversity and ecosystem services assessment platform IPBES

As governments prepare for endorsing the new global body to assess biodiversity and ecosystem services, four prominent scientists involved in its creation argue in this week’s issue of Science for a radical transformation of the relationship between science and society.

Faced with an alarming loss of ecosystems and biodiversity across the globe, the UN approved at the end of 2010 the creation of a new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Designed in the mould of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPBES aims to bridge the gap between the scientific understanding of ecosystem degradation, and the effective solutions and decisive government action required to reverse it.

The platform will act as a common framework for addressing all issues relating to biodiversity and ecosystem services research, formally adopted by the 65th UN General Assembly in December 2010. The UNEP Governing Council will meet next week in Nairobi to discuss and accept the GA request to establish the platform.

Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, along with co-authors Anantha Duraiappah of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), Anne Larigauderie of Paris-based DIVERSITAS, and Hal Mooney of Stanford University, calls for IPBES to move beyond what’s been done by platforms such as the IPCC or the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA) in the past. For instance, rather than limit its brief to assessing notional scenarios developed in academic seclusion, IPBES must work more practically – investigating the consequences of specific policies implemented by governing bodies, and utilizing scientific knowledge to inform and shape policy decisions at multiple levels.

Perrings, a professor of Environmental Economics, is emphatic that IPBES will only be credible if it can link concrete human actions to environmental changes, and vice versa. “Hypothetical scenarios bear no relationship to the real options confronting policy makers now”, he says.

Not surprisingly, the scientists also make a strong case to give the social sciences more weight in the IPBES mechanism. “Without the social sciences it would be extremely difficult to understand the role humanity plays in global change,” says Anantha Duraiappah, who heads the International Human Dimensions Programme (UNU-IHDP) in Bonn, Germany. “And it would be even more difficult to determine what humanity needs to change.”

It is in this area that perhaps the greatest challenge for IPBES lies, note the authors. One of IPBES key charges is to create quantitative projections of impacts of global change on biodiversity. To be able to create predictive social and environmental models conditional on specific policy options will require “a step change in our capacity to model interactions between the socio-economic system and the biophysical environment.”

But Duraiappah also cautions against putting too much stock in quantifying biodiversity or ecological services, particularly in simple economic terms. “We need to make sure that IPBES generates results beyond mere numbers. At this point, estimating the monetary value of natural resources does not suffice. Science equally needs to focus on human behavior and culture”, argues Duraiappah who, as former chief of UNEP’s Ecosystem Services Economics Unit also led UNEP’s IPBES initiative. “We are talking about societal issues and ultimately it is society that has to change.”

With the creation of the IPBES, coming at the start of the United Nations’ Decade of Biodiversity, governments have the chance to erect an effective, efficient mechanism that may come to redefine the nexus between science, policy and society, argue the authors. “It should not be wasted.”


IHDP is an international, interdisciplinary science programme, dedicated to promoting, catalysing and coordinating research, capacity-development and networking on the human dimensions of global environmental change. Its mandate is to provide international leadership in framing, developing, and integrating social science research on global environmental change and to promote the application of its key findings. IHDP is a joint programme of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and is hosted by the United Nations University (UNU). The IHDP Secretariat (UNU-IHDP) facilitates the development of IHDP’s programme and implements the strategic priorities. Its core functions encompass coordination of research activities, capacity building, organization of major events, and dissemination of results. For more information, visit

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