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Researching new ways to connect people to nature: a special collection for #WorldEnvironmentDay

How scientists are looking to nature to solve our environmental problems

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Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future” – revealing opportunities we may not have considered. Meanwhile, the theme of World Environment Day June 5 is “connecting people to nature”— a theme we have chosen for the special research collection we are presenting here. Prof. Damià Barceló, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier journal Science of the Total Environment, introduces this collection.


When we wake up in the morning and brush our teeth, we use chemicals like triclosan that go down the drain with the wastewater and into the treatment system. When we shower or wash our hands we use surfactants. When we wash clothes, we use bleach and fabric softening agents. We on cook frying pans that contain perfluorinated chemicals. And before leaving our apartment we use personal care products that most likely contain benzophenone or octocrylene, which has been detected in dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean.

And that’s just the chemicals; we also generate a huge volume of trash. Waste disposal is a big issue – what we do with our plastics, for example.

Our daily lives can have a big impact on nature, and we are now beginning to look to nature to find solutions to our environmental problems.

For World Environment Day June 5, 2017, we have collected research on the many aspects of our close and complex relationship with nature, from measuring our impact on biodiversity to monitoring human interaction with wild bears in Bhutan. With this collection we hope to highlight not only the breadth of research on this topic but also the depth of our connection to nature.

Informing policy

To make a significant and lasting difference, these solutions must be recognized, supported and adopted by policy makers around the world. Research is fundamental to effective policies that safeguard nature, which we need for the future.

Research and policy is a closed loop feedback system that cannot be separated: a lot of climate and environmental research is funded by the public sector; the results should always give new ideas for legislation. Policy makers look to research for empirical evidence that supports legislation. What chemicals need to be regulated? How should we dispose of our plastic waste?

Aggregated results are just as important, and there is a growing demand for data analytics showing what topics are emerging and trending in science globally. Elsevier’s 2015 report Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape revealed how today’s research fits with the Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 17 ambitious global goals that target poverty, gender inequality, water scarcity and many other challenges.

The analysis, done by Elsevier’s Analytical Services team, clustered sustainability science around five themes: Planet, People, Justice, Prosperity, and Partnership. Planet was the largest theme in terms of research output, highlighting how central the environment is to sustainability. More recent data reveals that in 2015 alone, nearly 37,000 scholarly papers were published on this theme globally, representing nearly half (46 percent) of the total sustainability science output in that year. Sarah Huggett, Analytical Services Product Manager for Research Networks at Elsevier, explained the significance of the research:

A robust evidence base is crucial to sound policy-making. Our reports aim to provide such data-lead insights to policymakers to help inform their discussions and decisions. This kind of information can contribute to strategically designed policies that help us achieve global goals through research.

To protect the planet, don’t forget the people factor

Conservation is critical to protecting biodiversity, which is often severely impacted by human activity. Two of the papers in this collection – both in Biological Conservation – show how a better understanding of the human element of our relationship with nature can be used to protect it.

In one study, a team led by researchers from the University of Washington say we need to consider people when planning and implementing conservation projects – including their livelihoods, cultural traditions and dependence on natural resources. Lead author Dr. Nathan Bennett, of the University of Washington, the University of British Columbia and Stanford University, said in a press release:

When people are ignored and conservation measures are put in, we see opposition, conflict and often failure. These problems require the best available evidence, and that includes having both natural and social scientists at the table.

The team reviewed 18 fields of study and identified 10 “distinct contributions” they say the social sciences can make to conservation. In particular, they conclude that by ensuring that people are more closely involved in conservation, the social sciences could help facilitate more socially acceptable and effective conservation policies.

In another paper, researchers from the USA, Denmark, Spain and Australia say citizen scientists – members of the general public who get involved in research – could have a much greater impact on biodiversity globally. They compiled a database of citizen science and community-based wildlife monitoring programs and found that currently only birds, butterflies and plants are monitored this way on a large scale.

The researchers say that with more resources, citizen science programs could be used more widely outside of the US and Europe, and for more species. According to lead author Dr. Mark Chandler, Director of Research Initiatives at the Earthwatch Institute, there are many big gaps in our biodiversity data: “Citizen scientists can help to fill some of these gaps, both geographically and taxonomically,” he said.

Nature-based solutions

People play a vital role in protecting nature, but some of the problems we have caused can only be solved by harnessing nature. Many of the articles in this collection highlight natural ways to solve the problems human activity has caused – we don’t always need high-tech or sophisticated systems, and approaches like ecological engineering can be highly effective.

In their paper in Science of the Total Environment, a team of researchers from across Europe outline the current state of “nature-based solutions” – a relatively new concept that, according to the authors, was “introduced specifically to promote nature as a means for providing solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation challenges.”

The idea is to use the nature to solve ecological and societal problems. One example they give is reducing the risk of flooding by creating or restoring ponds or wetlands, which provide important habitats for wildlife, among other benefits.

The authors acknowledge great opportunity, while making clear that to be successful, the approach will require transdisciplinary work. They conclude:

(Nature-based solutions) offer opportunities for encouraging mainstreaming of environmental targets into sectors in policy, business and practice that might not traditionally consider or value the environment, thereby strengthening the potential for strong sustainability in decision making.

Armed with peer-reviewed research on the way we interact with the environment, we can make better informed policy decisions that support problem solving and pollution prevention.

Special collection: how research is connecting people with nature

This special collection highlights some key research on our complex interactions with nature. You can read the article collection here – some of the articles are open access, and the subscription articles have been made free access until September 1, 2017.

How science can build a sustainable future

Empowering Unusual Knowledge As the US withdraws from the Paris climate agreement, sustainability science commands the world’s attention. This month, we examine the role of science in building a sustainable future and how science, technology and medicine will be instrumental in overcoming the greatest challenges facing humanity.

We open this series with a special issue for World Environment Day on the UN’s theme of “connecting people to nature.” Throughout the month, we will post more stories on this theme. You can find them here.

Elsevier’s Analytical Services

Analytical Services provides accurate, unbiased analysis on research performance by combining high-quality data sources with technical and research metrics expertise accrued over Elsevier's 130 years in academic publishing. The analytics team is experienced in serving policymakers, funders and academic and corporate research institutions around the world. They provide a variety of services, from simple, targeted reports to comprehensive multidimensional studies, as well as data delivery and web integration services for research management.

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