Human domination of the biosphere has greatly altered ecosystems, often overwhelming their capacity to provide ecosystem services critical to our survival. Yet ecological understanding of ecosystem services is quite limited. Previous work maps the supply and demand for services, assesses threats to them, and estimates economic values, but does not measure the underlying role of biodiversity in providing services. In contrast, experimental studies of biodiversity–function examine communities whose structures often differ markedly from those providing services in real landscapes. A bridge is needed between these two approaches. To develop this research agenda, I discuss critical questions and key approaches in four areas: (1) identifying the important ‘ecosystem service providers’; (2) determining the various aspects of community structure that influence function in real landscapes, especially compensatory community responses that stabilize function, or non-random extinction sequences that rapidly erode it; (3) assessing key environmental factors influencing provision of services, and (4) measuring the spatio-temporal scale over which providers and services operate. I show how this research agenda can assist in developing environmental policy and natural resource management plans.