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Breaking the Ecosystem Services Glass Ceiling: Realising Impact

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    Rights statement: © The Author(s) 2019 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

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Original languageEnglish
JournalRegional Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2019


Through changes in policy and practice, the inherent intent of the ecosystem services (ES) concept is to safeguard ecosystems for human wellbeing. While impact is intrinsic to the concept, little is known about how and whether ES science leads to impact. Evidence of impact is needed. Given the lack of consensus on what constitutes impact, we differentiate between attributional impacts (transitional impacts on policy, practice, awareness or other drivers) and consequential impacts (real, on-the-ground impacts on biodiversity, ES, ecosystem functions and human wellbeing) impacts. We conduct rigorous statistical analyses on three extensive databases for evidence of attributional impact (the form most prevalently reported): the IPBES catalogue (n = 102), the Lautenbach systematic review (n = 504) and a 5-year in-depth survey of the OPERAs Exemplars (n = 13). To understand the drivers of impacts, we statistically analyse associations between study characteristics and impacts. Our findings show that there exists much confusion with regard to defining ES science impacts, and that evidence of attributional impact is scarce: only 25% of the IPBES assessments self-reported impact (7% with evidence); in our meta-analysis of Lautenbach’s systematic review, 33% of studies provided recommendations indicating intent of impacts. Systematic impact reporting was imposed by design on the OPERAs Exemplars: 100% reported impacts, suggesting the importance of formal impact reporting. The generalised linear models and correlations between study characteristics and attributional impact dimensions highlight four characteristics as minimum baseline for impact: study robustness, integration of policy instruments into study design, stakeholder involvement and type of stakeholders involved. Further in depth examination of the OPERAs Exemplars showed that study characteristics associated with impact on awareness and practice differ from those associated with impact on policy: to achieve impact along specific dimensions, bespoke study designs are recommended. These results inform targeted recommendations for ES science to break its impact glass ceiling.

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