Valuing Nature


A friend posed a question on facebook the other day “Is a paintbrush used for pollination as valuable as a bee? ” and this got me thinking about how we value nature.

It is not a thought experiment I am unfamiliar with. In my new role as a postdoc I  am working on ecosystem service provision in agricultural landscapes and one of the key issues surrounding the study of ecosystem services is that it is impossible to quantify something unless we can put a value on it. Often this is in monetary terms but with many ecosystem services, this is not possible. Of course, it is possible* but I would question the usefulness of such a value.

Before I continue I would just like to take a little aside to explain what ecosystem services are and why the concept is a useful one:

Ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are the benefits (to humans) gained from any given ecosystem. The idea was popularised in the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment as it allows for the quantification of the benefits of any given ecosystem and therefore the grading of how well ecosystems are performing in terms of the provision of these services.

Ecosystem services can be split into four categories: regulating, supporting,  provisioning, and cultural. The first two of these, it could be argued, are not just of benefit to humans but indeed allow the system to continue functioning. Regulating services cover things like carbon sequestration and waste decomposition, whilst supporting services includes nutrient cycling and soil formation. Provisioning services are much more strongly related to humans however and include things like food, fuel, and fibre. Finally, cultural services incorporate the recreational, spiritual and educational uses of that ecosystem.

But what about the bees?

Ok, so we know what an ecosystem service is but how does that help us answer the question of whether a paintbrush used for pollination is as valuable as a bee?

Well, in my opinion, this all comes down to the idea of whether you subscribe to the school of thought that things only have a value in terms of their usefulness to humans. Many people would argue there is a greater inherent value to nature than just its use to humans, but let’s, just for a minute, pretend that humans are the most important thing in the world and other species only have value in terms of their usefulness to us.

I still think my answer is no, a paintbrush used for pollination is not as valuable as a bee. Bees not only pollinate our food crops (which is presumably where we are applying our paintbrush pollination techniques) but they also pollinate many other wild plants too. Many medicines, pesticides, materials and so many other things we rely on in everyday life are derived from natural products. Given the vast number of species that exist on earth that we have yet to describe it is foolish to believe that some of those may not contain compounds that could be of use to humans. They may even be present in species we already know about but are yet to screen for such compounds. Who knows? ten years down the line a new technique could be developed that allows us to extract an as yet undescribed cancer-curing compound from an as yet undescribed plant. I wouldn’t want to be the one to let that plant die out before then because I didn’t pollinate it with my paintbrush!


*Valuing ecosystem services has been attempted by many authors and is discussed at length in the scientific literature so it is not something I will discuss here. However, if you are interested here are some references to take a look at:

Heal, Geoffrey. “Valuing ecosystem services.” Ecosystems 3.1 (2000): 24-30.

Liu, Shuang, et al. “Valuing ecosystem services.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1185.1 (2010): 54-78.

Salzman, James. “Valuing ecosystem services.” Ecology LQ24 (1997): 887.

Costanza, Robert, et al. “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.” nature 387.6630 (1997): 253-260.

Wainger, Lisa A., and James W. Boyd. “Valuing ecosystem services.” Ecosystem-based management for the oceans(2009): 92-114.


The language of science

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When talking science with other scientists it is very easy to slip into a language that is common to you both. It will probably be full of jargon and acronyms. These conversations, whilst perfectly acceptable between scientists can sound like a completely foreighn language to those who are not scientists or even those from a different discipline within science.

We often forget this when trying to communicate our work. This last week I have been listening to a lot of great researchers explaining their work to the rest of the members of the institute where I work. Now, this is an audience that is mostly scientists but there were some other members of staff in the audience as well from the various support teams across the institute from controlled environments all the way through to legal.

This must have presented these speakers with a great challenge as there would, most probably, have been a desire to slip into their everyday language that is used within their group – words that are familiar to everyone who works in their field – but instead they needed to communicate in a style that was much more accessible both to scientists outside of their field and the other members of the institute.

I thought that all of the speakers did fantastically. Across the entire two days there were only a couple of moments when I became lost and the talks definitely spanned areas that were far outside my expertise.

Having recently given a talk myself (you can read the transcript here) as part of the popular public engagement series Cafe Scientifique I have been thinking a lot about language and how we use it in so many different ways.

At school and university we are often judged on our writing and presentation skills and so the way in which we communicate is very much tailored to this. We communicate in a way to show off, to demonstrate how clever we are. However, upon leaving the education system this is very rarely the purpose of any form of communication. The purpose of almost any form of communication can fall into one of four categories: to inform, describe, persuade or entertain. None of these involve the writer, or speaker, demonstrating the extent of their own cleverness through the use of absurdly long sentences or overly complicated grammatical constructs. So does our education system favour this?

I feel that as scientist, many of us have a long way to go to improve our communication. So many papers fall foul of the ideas discussed above and use overly complicated language leaving the reader perplexed and confused as opposed to informed about the science within.

The language of science is not only restricted to paper-writing but to many other types of activities. We need to communicate with stake-holders policy makers, members of the public, children, other scientists within our fields and from different disciplines. Each of these separate audiences requires a different language and careful thought about the way in which we communicate our science.