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What comes to mind when you visualize an ecosystem: Trees? Birds? Rivers? Fish? Most who take part in this exercise can rapidly visualize Mother Nature but often forget one critically important component: people.
Humans play a major role in ecosystem science, affecting everything from land use changes to wildife. Often, the role of people is at least as important--and complex--as the natural components and processes.
In the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, a new “SES Team” seeks to integrate the study of human dimensions with our studies of natural ecosystems. SES stands for social and ecological systems, and SES research topics cover everything from the valuation of goods and services provided by ecosystems to how humans’ perception of ecological changes compares to biophysical data collected from sensors. Integrated SES research can improve our understanding of ecosystems and the role of science information in environmental policy and resource decision-making.
In February, the IoE hosted a two-day workshop for Montana’s leading social scientists with an interest in SES. Led by MSU-Billings Director of Grants and Sponsored Programs Dave McGinnis (see sidebar), the diverse group included economists, political scientists, anthropologists, resource geographers, landscape ecologists, earth scientists, and microbiologists. Diana Liverman, a University of Arizona Regent’s Professor who was in Montana as a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer, provided an external context.
Social and ecological scientists don’t often collaborate, and each group’s terminology and approaches to scholarship can be significantly different. Liverman helped to break the ice and start building new multidisciplinary connections by acknowledging some of these differences and facilitating discussion surrounding them.
The gathered team then brainstormed SES grand challenge topics that can drive future IoE research. Building from the current Montana EPScoR RII Track-1 research objectives organized around microbiology, environmental science, and landscape vulnerability to climate change, participants identified several potential topics:
• understanding land use change in response to rapid environmental change;
• quantifying Montana’s natural capital;
• measuring the adaptive capacity of resource management institutions;
• documenting how perceptions of natural resources influence management actions and land use change; and
• exploring potential positive social system outcomes from environmental change.
In the coming months, the IoE will engage more SES scholars and IoE Fellows to refine and prioritize the list. True SES scholarship takes time and new approaches, but the reward is a better understanding of ecosystems in a fully integrated and realistic manner.
Program Director: Ray Callaway
Project Administrator: Todd Kipfer
University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812
Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education
2500 Broadway Street
Helena, MT 59620