1. Ecosystem services are the benefits humans obtain from ecosystems. The importance of research into ecosystem services has been widely recognized, and rapid progress is being made. However, the prevailing approach to quantifying ecosystem services is still based on static analyses and single services, ignoring system dynamics, uncertainty and feedbacks. This is not only partly due to a lack of mechanistic understanding of processes and a dearth of empirical data, but also due to a failure to engage fully with the interdisciplinarity of the problem.
2. We argue that there is a tendency to ignore the feedbacks between and within both social and ecological systems, and a lack of explicit consideration of uncertainty. Metrics need to be developed that can predict thresholds, which requires strong linkages to underlying processes, while the development of policy for management of ecosystem services needs to be based on a broader understanding of value and drivers of human well-being.
3. We highlight the complexities, gaps in current knowledge and research, and the potentially promising avenues for future investigation in four priority research areas: agendas, processes, metrics and uncertainty.
4. Synthesis and applications. The research interest in the field of ecosystem services is rapidly expanding, and can contribute significantly to the sustainable management of natural resources. However, a narrow disciplinary approach, or an approach which does not consider feedbacks within and between ecological and social systems, has the potential to produce dangerously misleading policy recommendations. In contrast, if we explicitly acknowledge and address uncertainties and complexities in the provision of ecosystem services, progress may appear slower but our models will be substantially more robust and informative about the effects of environmental change.