OOS 80-8
From “war among ecologists” to uneasy consensus: Science and conservation values in the biodiversity-ecosystem function debate

Thursday, August 13, 2015: 4:00 PM
340, Baltimore Convention Center
David M. Frank, Environmental Studies and Center for Bioethics, New York University

This paper explores interactions between ecological science and conservation values in the biodiversity-ecosystem function (BEF) debate of the 1990s-2000s. The scientific debate concerned the proper interpretation of observed correlations between species richness and ecosystem properties like primary productivity in experimental ecosystems. The debate over the causal or explanatory role of species richness was presumed to have implications for conservation policy, and the use of such research to support policy recommendations generated hostility between rival groups of ecologists. The early to mid-2000s as well as more recent years saw the publication of several “consensus” reviews, syntheses, critical overviews, and meta-analyses that attempted to articulate the state of BEF knowledge.


I argue that the BEF research program and subsequent debate was due in part to the adoption of biodiversity as a goal in conservation politics, and the ecologists who questioned the causal efficacy of species richness were also suggesting problems with this conservation goal. An uneasy epistemic consensus was formed in part by framing the debate as one that could be settled by establishing the operation of mechanisms that explain observed richness-function correlations. Some research also shifted focus from taxonomic to functional diversity, with emphasis on “functional traits” of particular species. Both of these moves allowed BEF researchers to continue to operate under the broad conception of ‘biodiversity’ while also acknowledging the importance of composition to ecosystem properties. I argue that the 2000s consensus was “uneasy” in that multiple groups published synthesis documents that made distinct claims and emphasized different aspects of BEF research. It was also unclear whether BEF research was at all relevant to practical problems of biological conservation.