The BESS of beginnings for MERP

Published: 14 February 2017

By MERP's Programme Advisory Group member, Prof. David Raffaelli


Sea meeting landIt should be no surprise that MERP and the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability programme (BESS) share many features – they were forged in the same furnace. In 2008, an intensive 2-day workshop drew in researchers from the marine, freshwater and terrestrial communities, to create a large-scale programme dealing with the linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem services, which translated into an ambitious bid for a £30M programme over 10 years. In the event, the terrestrial-freshwater and the marine elements had to be funded separately, with BESS starting 3 years earlier (2011, with co-funding from BBSRC), than MERP (2014, with co-funding from Defra).
The core questions being addressed by both programmes can essentially be framed in the same way: what are the linkages between system natural capital and flows of services, how will these change in the future and how can we track those changes in capital and flows? It will be interesting to see how similar the answers to these questions are for both types of ecosystem, given the many obvious differences between the ecosystems being tackled and the backgrounds and cultures of the communities tackling them. 

To anticipate this, BESS and MERP ran a lively workshop in October 2016 around the question 'Are the contrasts between marine and other systems fundamental or incidental?'  It is only too easy to highlight contrasts between terrestrial-freshwater and marine ecosystems, such as: variation over time (marine systems seem “redder” than terrestrial); the more viscous marine medium compared to air; that there are no equivalents of filter feeder and sessile animals in terrestrial systems; the lack of obvious trophic cascades in open oceans, and the consequences of the openness of marine systems for recruitment dynamics. Yet there are many areas where the two systems have a lot in common: traits and size spectra approaches, and higher-level system properties, such as ecosystem services and measures of biodiversity.  Picking sensible comparisons between the two ecosystem types is likely to generate greater insights rather than looking for divergences, as Tom Webb argued in his paper 'Marine and terrestrial ecology: unifying concepts, revealing differences.' 

As the BESS programme approaches its final phase (sunsets in 2017), we have had an opportunity to reflect on why the programme has been so successful and some of these reflections might be useful for MERP. BESS has been incredibly fortunate in the selection by independent panels of the research community, which has proven strongly collaborative, collegiate and willing to share ideas and data. Getting more than 150 researchers in 4 consortia, 8 research grants, 2 knowledge exchange awards, 12 workshops and 8 working groups to work together towards the same goal turned out to be breeze! This was helped greatly by ensuring that everyone addressed the same core questions and by restricting the main research effort on four landscape platforms, each of which attracted more grants and researchers. Workshops and working groups have been a very cost-effective way to both build the community and for maximising “bang-for-bucks”, whilst the early career researchers (NRG) provided much of the glue that has held this large network together.
So what has BESS produced science-wise that can be compared and contrasted with MERP as the latter’s outputs emerge? A growing list of BESS outputs can be found on the BESS website, along with a series of overviews on specific areas, such as Supporting Pollination, Mapping Ecosystem Services, Food Security, Reducing Flood Risk and Cultural Services and Resilience. Also, much of our activity will be presented at a symposium on Advances in Ecosystem Services, run jointly by BESS and the British Ecological Society at Cardiff, 24th-26th April 2017, which should provide much relevant comparative material for the MERP programme.

Related Information:

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability programme (BESS) National Network

BESS is a national network of researchers working within consortia, research grants, workshops and working groups and has a dynamic community of PhD students. The 4 research platforms represent different landscape types with its own consortium: DURESS tackling upland freshwater in Wales; CBESS tackling coastal saltmarshes in Essex and Morecombe Bay; WESSEXBESS tackling lowland agriculture on Salisbury Plain, and F3UES tackling the urban areas of Luton, Milton Keynes and Bedford.

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