Mapping ecological restoration knowledge: linking theory and practice in an interactive online platform

Ecosystems globally have become degraded through land use change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change in the past decades. Ecosystem restoration is a powerful tool to help combat land and water degradation and the associated damage to human livelihoods. Currently, information regarding restoration science and practices are dispersed across large numbers of scientific papers and other resources, without strong linkages between ecological theory and practice. Scientists are registering a need to improve the effectiveness of restoration ecology by organizing and improving the accessibility of existing knowledge. Heger et al. (2022) therefore aimed to fill this gap and provide an overview of restoration science and practices by linking empirical evidence with supporting theories. The authors recommend the development and implementation of an online portal that better connects and develops ecological restoration knowledge and research.

The authors compiled a list of many data portals that provided restoration information to scientists and practitioners, and perceived a lack of connection to ecological theory and knowledge from other fields that might be relevant or helpful to ecosystem restoration. They maintained that in the face of urgent ecological change and need for restoration, online portals are needed that enable the mapping and assessment of the theoretical foundations of restoration science to ensure its effectiveness and accuracy. 

Heger et al. (2022) found that improving the connection between restoration practice and science will provide benefits for both areas, and an interactive online platform could act as a powerful tool for this integration. The authors outlined that such a platform could do this through four major steps: presenting an overview of restoration ecology as a science underpinning ecological restoration; identifying theoretical work relevant to restoration; directly linking relevant publications; and summarizing empirical evidence for ecological theories in specific settings.

The first step would involve creating a bigger picture perspective of restoration, to reduce barriers to accessing information for policymakers, new practitioners and motivated members of the public. This could be achieved by pointing out the four main topics that restoration is interested in: identifying the problem, defining goals, providing solutions and examining success. Users could choose which of these areas are most interesting to them, and this overview could thus become an entry point for searching the underlying database of existing knowledge relevant for restoration. In the second step, innovative search and filtering functions would allow users to discover theoretical work relevant for specific restoration projects. The authors propose the novel search tool Open Knowledge Maps as an example of the ways in which such an online resource could identify similarities among publications and topics. In the third step, users could directly access the publications identified as relevant via that novel search and filtering tool.

Heger et al. (2022) suggested that with such functionalities, links between relevant hypotheses from ecology and their contributions toward successful restoration could be displayed more clearly to provide a more holistic knowledge base for ecological restoration. A last step would be to provide summaries of empirical evidence supporting different theories in specific settings. This would enable the collection of meta-analyses that could test how useful ecological theories are in restoration projects and practices.

The authors however outlined that this online platform should be produced and continuously developed in an open process, bringing together specialists and scientists from different fields as well as non-academic professionals and specialists. Close cooperation is essential for this process, and the resulting platform should be openly accessible and follow the FAIR principles for scientific data. Continuous development and evaluation of the platform is also paramount to its success and its innovative potential. Through these methods and integrative processes, ecological restoration knowledge could be represented in this interactive online platform and become an effective resource for supporting global biodiversity and human livelihoods.

Vicky Temperton, Head of the Institute of Ecology and associated with SESI, is a co-author of this article.

Read the full paper by Heger et al. (2022) here.

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