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A Master Leader in Collaborative Science

Apr 8 2020 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Sarah Cafasso

Hal Mooney has been a crucial force in getting governments, companies, and the scientific community to recognize and invest in the many benefits that natural systems provide to people.

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Hal Mooney won’t tell you about the tremendous impact of his environmental work in the world, but he’ll tell you about the incredible people he’s worked with along the way. The soft-spoken Stanford biology professor emeritus has been a crucial force in getting governments, companies, and the scientific community to recognize and invest in the many benefits that natural systems provide to people. Recently, he added another accomplishment to his lengthy list when he contributed to the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The assessment marked the third major milestone in global biodiversity policy over the past 25 years, and Mooney has been a crucial part of all three. If you ask him about the success, though, he’ll mostly praise the collaborators he’s worked with to achieve those milestones.

“It benefited from a great group of people,” Mooney said of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was the first worldwide assessment of its kind to evaluate humans’ impact on the environment, and in turn, the environment’s impact on human wellbeing. Mooney served as co-chair, shepherding the science through a complex intergovernmental process while also leading the core writing team. The assessment catalyzed global interest in ecosystem services science and paved the way for fellow scientists to expand the field.

Since 1968, Mooney has been researching and advocating for biodiversity in his classrooms at Stanford and on the global policy stage. His publications—which range from fastidious plant species research methodologies to broad-ranging frameworks for ecosystem assessment—have garnered more than 145,000 citations from the scientific community worldwide. Widely recognized as an international expert on environmental sciences, he has been a key contributor to both the research and the development of significant global environmental policies over the past six decades.

The most recent of these milestones came last year, with the culmination of the first IPBES Global Assessment. Mooney brought his years of expertise to the assessment—first as an early advocate for science-informed decisions, and later as a review editor for the final product. “We needed our version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Mooney said, referring to the United Nations body responsible for assessing climate change science and providing adaptation and mitigation options to policymakers. “Here was this great assessment about climate, but no one was talking about the stuff on the ground, the natural systems—our biodiversity.”

Unlike the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Biodiversity Assessment before it, the IPBES assessment was a formal undertaking of the United Nations. “Every decision required unanimous support, which made the process much longer than the others,” said Mooney. “But it was such a satisfying process, because we needed to hear everyone’s voice. Ultimately, we found consensus, and we now have an assessment that has the weight of the UN behind it.” 

The 2019 assessment revealed widespread, accelerating declines in our planet’s biodiversity and life-support systems. It served as a significant milestone for the international scientific community, and filled an important gap in ecosystem services policy. Looking ahead, Mooney and his collaborators saw opportunity to use the assessment’s outcomes to spur the change many scientists have been calling for.

(Read about the NatCap analyses that were core to the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment)

Harold Mooney, at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.
Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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In a new paper led by the Natural Capital Project’s managing director Mary Ruckelshaus, Mooney and others have laid out “pathways to action” through which countries can take the assessment’s findings and apply them at local and national levels. “This paper is about looking at collaborative science at many levels,” said Mooney. “It can’t just be about governments passing these assessments down and saying ‘do something with this,’ you need to build buy-in with all the stakeholders and provide a pathway for the individual countries to follow.” 

In particular, the authors say, there is room for the collaborative process to be better fostered within academia. “Universities haven’t caught up. When scientists commit to this kind of global assessment or collaboration, they’re doing so for their own personal reasons, and they’re often sacrificing some standing within their departments,” said Mooney, referencing the typical tenure system within academia. “We need to encourage this collaborative work, rather than falling back on the old system of competition between individuals.”

The authors call for scientists’ time, energy and resources to be devoted to supporting decision makers who want to implement the recommendations of the IPBES global assessment. These assessments take time, and the requirements needed to follow through to action require even more resources. Critically, we need to foster international collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and civil society to see any positive effects of these intensive scientific undertakings. This means home institutions need to lower their barriers and adapt their standards of “successful” academic enterprise, and the scientific community needs to shift both their framework and mindset for engaging with stakeholders over the long term.

Mooney’s constant support of other scientists has only become more generous over the years, from building up an international organization of scientists with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program to leading the International Council for Science as Secretary General. The list goes on and on.

“Hal embodies the kind of scientist we need to spur global action,” said Ruckelshaus. “He prioritizes relationships and looks to build up all the people around him. He has been practicing the co-development that we’re talking about in this paper throughout his career—the kind of engagement that requires a scientist’s personal commitment, respect for those whose decisions you aim to inform, as well as financial and professional support from their home institution. He’s been doing it for years at Stanford, and it’s time we all followed in his footsteps.”

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