U.S. Geological Survey Ecosystems Science Strategy— Advancing Discovery and Application through Collaboration

Circular 1383-C
By: , and 


Executive Summary

Ecosystem science is critical to making informed decisions about natural resources that can sustain our Nation’s economic and environmental well-being. Resource managers and policymakers are faced with countless decisions each year at local, regional, and national levels on issues as diverse as renewable and nonrenewable energy development, agriculture, forestry, water supply, and resource allocations at the urban-rural interface. The urgency for sound decisionmaking is increasing dramatically as the world is being transformed at an unprecedented pace and in uncertain directions. Environmental changes are associated with natural hazards, greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing demands for water, land, food, energy, mineral, and living resources. At risk is the Nation’s environmental capital, the goods and services provided by resilient ecosystems that are vital to the health and wellbeing of human societies. Ecosystem science—the study of systems of organisms interacting with their environment and the consequences of natural and human-induced change on these systems—is necessary to inform decisionmakers as they develop policies to adapt to these changes.

This Ecosystems Science Strategy is built on a framework that includes basic and applied science. It highlights the critical roles that U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists and partners can play in building scientific understanding and providing timely information to decisionmakers. The strategy underscores the connection between scientific discoveries and the application of new knowledge, and it integrates ecosystem science and decisionmaking, producing new scientific outcomes to assist resource managers and providing public benefits. We envision the USGS as a leader in integrating scientific information into decisionmaking processes that affect the Nation’s natural resources and human well-being.

The USGS is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in ecosystem science. With its wide range of expertise, the Bureau can bring holistic, cross-scale, interdisciplinary capabilities to the design and conduct of monitoring, research, and modeling and to new technologies for data collection, management, and visualization. Collectively, these capabilities can be used to reveal ecological patterns and processes, explain how and why ecosystems change, and forecast change over different spatial and temporal scales. USGS science can provide managers with options and decision-support tools to use resources sustainably. The USGS has long-standing, collaborative relationships with the Department of the Interior (DOI) and other partners in the natural sciences, in both conducting science and applying the results. The USGS engages these partners in cooperative investigations that otherwise would lack the necessary support or be too expensive for a single bureau to conduct.

The heart of this strategy is a framework for USGS ecosystems science that focuses on five long-term goals, which are seen as interconnected components that reinforce our vision of the USGS providing science that is at the forefront of decisionmaking:

  • Improve understanding of ecosystem structure, function, and processes. The focus for this goal is an understanding of how ecosystems work, including the dynamics of species, their populations, interactions, and genetics, and how they change across spatial and temporal scales.
  • Advance understanding of how drivers influence ecosystem change. The challenges here are explaining the drivers of ecosystem change, their spatio-temporal patterns, their uncertainties and interactions, and their influence on ecosystem processes and dynamics.
  • Improve understanding of the services that ecosystems provide to society. Here the emphasis is on the measurement of environmental capital and ecosystem services, and the identification of sources and patterns of change in space and time.
  • Develop tools, technologies, and capacities to inform decisionmaking about ecosystems. This includes developing new technologies and approaches for conducting applications-oriented ecosystem science. A principal challenge will be how to quantify uncertainty and incorporate it in decision analysis.
  • Apply science to enhance strategies for management, conservation, and restoration of ecosystems. These challenges include development of novel approaches to monitoring, assessment, and restoration of ecosystems; new methods to address species of concern and communities at risk; and innovations in decision analysis and support to address imminent ecosystem changes or those that are underway.

Closely integrated with the five goals are four strategic approaches that provide the path forward for the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area. These approaches cross-cut all of the goals and are seen as essential to the implementation of this strategy:

  • Assess information needs for ecosystem science through enhanced partnerships. Work with the DOI and other agencies and institutions to identify, design, and implement priority decision-driven ecological research.
  • Promote the use of interdisciplinary ecosystem science. Design and conduct interdisciplinary process-oriented research in ecosystem science.
  • Enhance modeling and forecasting. Build models to forecast ecosystem change, assess future management scenarios, and reduce uncertainties through an adaptive learning process.
  • Support decisionmaking. Use quantitative approaches to assess the vulnerabilities of ecosystems, habitats, and species, and evaluate strategies for adaptation, restoration, and sustainable management.

Following the four strategic approaches are a set of proposed actions that represent a sampling of specific USGS activities that align with this strategy and that address the Nation’s most pressing environmental needs.

The strategy emphasizes coordination of activities across the USGS mission areas pursuant to these goals. Ecosystem science is inherently interdisciplinary and requires a broad perspective that incorporates the biological and physical sciences, climate science, information technology, and scientific capacity in mission areas across the Bureau. With its emphasis on coordination, this strategy can provide a critical underpinning for integrated science efforts with scientists from multiple mission areas of the USGS working together. Of course, the USGS will continue to conduct discipline-specific and interdisciplinary investigations, and both will continue to be vital parts of the ecosystem science portfolio.

Finally, the strategy stresses the importance of coordination with other Federal agencies and organizations in the natural resources community. The USGS collaborates with resource agencies in the DOI and other organizations throughout the world to meet societal needs for species and ecosystem management. Working with these agencies and organizations, the USGS will play a key role in guiding sound decisionmaking during the next decade by advancing the scientific foundation for sustaining the natural resources that diverse, productive, resilient ecosystems provide.

Suggested Citation

Williams, B.K., Wingard, G.L., Brewer, Gary, Cloern, J.E., Gelfenbaum, Guy, Jacobson, R.B., Kershner, J.L., McGuire, A.D., Nichols, J.D., Shapiro, C.D., van Riper III, Charles, and White, R.P., 2013, U.S. Geological Survey ecosystems science strategy—Advancing discovery and application through collaboration: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1383–C, 43 p.

ISSN: 2330-5703 (online)

ISSN: 1067-084X (print)

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • About this Report
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Ecosystem Science Goals
  • Integrating Ecosystem Science across the USGS
  • Strategic Approaches and Outcomes: The Path Forward
  • Proposed Actions
  • Summary and Future of Ecosystem Science for the USGS
  • Important Next Steps
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Author Affiliations and Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 2. Key Terms
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title U.S. Geological Survey ecosystems science strategy—Advancing discovery and application through collaboration
Series title Circular
Series number 1383
Chapter C
DOI 10.3133/cir1383C
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Ecosystems Mission Area
Description vii, 43 p.
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details