Aside from undertaking regular and timely assessments of knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services, the newly formed Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is charged with identifying and prioritizing key scientific information needed for policy makers, supporting policy formulation and implementation, and catalyzing the capacity-building effort needed to improve the science-policy interface. These functions go well beyond those of previous assessments, and have the potential to make IPBES much more useful to international policy. Knowledge creation involves persuading researchers, research funders and monitoring bodies both to secure the data needed to track and project changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and to undertake the research needed to uncover mechanisms that explain how biodiversity change affects human wellbeing. Policy support involves projection of the consequences of specific policies or programs of action for biodiversity and ecosystem services, and evaluation of the effects of mitigation, adaptation or stabilization strategies. Capacity building involves the development of the skills needed both to undertake the synthetic research required and to model the consequences of particular policy options across space and time.
If it is to realize its potential IPBES needs to connect science and policy in ways that similarly go well beyond previous assessments. First, unlike previous assessments, IPBES will be charged with conducting preliminary assessments of potentially important emerging issues. The science panel should take this as a charge to be actively engaged in bringing issues to the decision body, the plenary. Second, to assure the policy relevance of assessments, the plenary should ask working groups to assess the consequences of specific policies or programs of action. Projections of future should then be based on these policies or programs, and not on arbitrary scenarios. Third, while the most important capacity-building challenges concern developing countries, IPBES should include capacity building in the synthesis, meta-analysis and dynamic modeling needed for policy-relevant assessment— as much a challenge in developed as in developing countries. But it should also involve building the capacity of the policy community to engage with science. A critical lesson from the Global Biodiversity Assessment, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that assessments should evaluate consequences of real policy options. This requires closer integration of the different elements of the science-policy process, and the more active engagement of scientists in that process. IPBES offers a unique opportunity that should not be wasted.