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.


Hello World


As a PhD student today there are many conflicting pressures on my time. First and foremost, I have to conduct my own independent research. To most people this is the definition of a PhD it is a 3-4 year training exercise in which you learn how to “do” research. However, it can be so much more than that. There is a big drive in today’s research to be increasingly interdisciplinary. This means that as a PhD student not only do you have to know your own topic inside out but you have to understand where it fits in with the research landscape and how you could work across disciplines to achieve a greater goal. Todays PhD student also has to be able to effectively communicate their work to a large number of different audiences. Academic conferences are the traditional forum for discussion of research topics. Yet, today there is an increasing need to be able to communicate your work much more widely than that – to the local community, key stakeholders, industry partners, schools and the press to name but a few. With all these different pressures on my time, what could I do but add another one.

I decided to start this blog, not to punish myself further by adding another demand on my time, but to provide an outlet for my thoughts on life as a PhD student, to share my opinions on scientific topics of interest and most importantly to write. Writing is hard. However, the more you write the easier it becomes. So, by writing here I hope to improve my writing and develop my communication skills.

My PhD is in agriculture, but my work spans across the fields of ecology, statistics and soil science as well. As these are my main areas of interest this is where the bulk of the science I discuss will be drawn from but my interests lie far and wide across the sciences (well maybe excluding physics!). I also hope to discuss the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD. I am now over half-way through my studies and there have been some ups and downs along the way. Luckily for me it has been mostly ups but as I enter the final 18 months and the thesis deadline looms ever closer I think there may be some more trying times to come.

So if you are a fellow student, researcher, academic or just interested to learn a bit more about science I would love it if you would join me for this journey.


Next time: my project – what is my PhD all about?



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