1. Businesses have an unrivalled ability to mobilize human, physical and financial capital, often manage large land holdings, and draw on resources and supply products that impact a wide array of ecosystems. Businesses therefore have the potential to make a substantial contribution to arresting declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services. To realize this potential, businesses require support from researchers in applied ecology to inform how they measure and manage their impacts on, and opportunities presented to them by, biodiversity and ecosystem services.
2. We reviewed papers in leading applied ecology journals to assess the research contribution from existing collaborations involving businesses. We reviewed applications to, and grants funded by, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council for evidence of public investment in such collaborations. To scope opportunities for expanding collaborations with businesses, we conducted workshops with three sectors (mining and quarrying, insurance and manufacturing) in which participants identified exemplar ecological research questions of interest to their sector.
3. Ten to fifteen per cent of primary research papers in Journal of Applied Ecology and Ecological Applications evidenced business involvement, mostly focusing on traditional rural industries (farming, fisheries and forestry). The review of UK research council funding found that 35% of applications mentioned business engagement, while only 1% of awarded grants met stricter criteria of direct business involvement.
4. Some questions identified in the workshops aim to reduce costs from businesses’ impacts on the environment and others to allow businesses to exploit new opportunities. Some questions are designed to inform long-term planning undertaken by businesses, but others would have more immediate commercial applications. Finally, some research questions are designed to streamline and make more effective those environmental policies that affect businesses.
5. Business participants were forward-looking regarding ecological questions and research. For example, representatives from mining and quarrying companies emphasized the need to move beyond biodiversity to consider how ecosystems function, while those from the insurance sector stressed the importance of ecology researchers entering into new types of interdisciplinary collaboration.
6. Synthesis and applications. Businesses from a variety of sectors demonstrated a clear interest in managing their impacts on, and exploiting opportunities created by, ecosystem services and biodiversity. To achieve this, businesses are asking diverse ecological research questions, but publications in leading applied ecology journals and research council funding reveal limited evidence of direct engagement with businesses. This represents a missed opportunity for ecological research findings to see more widespread application.