Research questions to identify ecological indicators most useful for linking ecosystems and human wellbeing
While the desirability of ecological indicators that foster social science interpretation and use as well as public comprehension is well established, guidelines for developing indicators that meet these needs are not as well developed. In the past few years, economists have identified economic principles – based on production theory – that serve as a useful guide to identification of ecological indicators that most effectively link ecosystem metrics to public conceptions of ecosystems. These indicators are termed linking indicators or indicators of final ecosystem goods and services (FEGS). The view is that these indicators would be useful in communications with publics and in benefits analyses. As such they should be considered for inclusion in ecological models and monitoring programs. We have explored these concepts in evaluations of indicators for regional aquatic monitoring and in case studies of benefits analyses. We have identified provisional indicators, and gaps in existing data and understanding that limit our capacity to represent these indicators. We have also defined a set of research questions designed to evaluate how best to improve the specification of indicators linking ecosystems to people and social analysis, and ultimately to improve our ability to identify and evaluate outcomes resulting from environmental policy and regulation.
The key questions that we have identified are:
- What are the performance metrics for distinguishing between linking indicators that “work” and those that “don’t work”?
- Do linking indicators more proximate to individual experience perform better than those more distal?
- Are preferences similar enough across beneficiaries that no special targeting of linking indicators for specific groups is necessary?
- For any specific linking indicator, do more aggregate descriptions (e.g., fish) perform better than less aggregate descriptions (e.g., trout)?
- Do indicators that aggregate over multiple categories (e.g. a fishing quality index) perform better than indicators that focus on specific ecological components (e.g. fish and site appeal)?
- What are the temporal and spatial dimensions of indicators that matter to people?
- Does the existence value context present any specific complications in indicator design relative to the use value context?
We will develop ecological illustrations of some of these questions and suggest that although these are mainly social science questions they can only effectively be pursued by teams of natural and social scientists.