Gretchen Daily recognized for pioneering natural capital science

Gretchen Daily
Gretchen Daily

Stanford Natural Capital Project co-founder GRETCHEN DAILY, Bing Professor in Environmental Science, has been awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for illuminating and quantifying the economic value of natural environment.

The Tyler Prize “recognizes individuals who have contributed in an outstanding manner to the scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world.” Out of 82 awardees since 1973, Daily is the seventh woman to receive the prize. She is recognized alongside World Wildlife Fund International President Pavan Sukhdev.

In May 2019, the United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted devastating biodiversity loss and warned that societies cannot continue to pursue forms of economic growth that are blind to nature. Daily has been working to integrate nature’s values into economic and conservation decisions for years; she co-founded the Stanford Natural Capital Project in 2005 to do just that.

“We can think of ecosystems as a type of capital asset; just as we have assets like human capital or financial capital, we also have natural capital,” said Daily, who is also a senior fellow in the Woods Institute and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. “We depend on living natural capital — Earth’s lands, waters and biodiversity. But around the world, we are liquidating nature at accelerating rates.”

Daily’s groundbreaking work forecasting biodiversity change and estimating the values of ecosystems and their services started when she was a PhD student at Stanford. In a time when many conservation scientists justified their efforts to conserve nature simply for the value of its existence, Daily’s risky, non-classical research projects bore ideas that have transformed the way we think about conservation.

“Gretchen showed how there could be other quantitative values on ecosystems through developing and organizing the field of ecosystem services,” said Hugh Possingham, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, one of the core partner organizations of the Natural Capital Project. “This research … set her apart as a globally-significant thought leader.”

Today, the Natural Capital Project is a global leader in natural capital science and practice. InVEST, the organization’s free, open-source software, is designed to quantify and map return-on-investment in nature. InVEST helps governments, corporations and development banks understand the risks and costs of losing natural capital so they can make decisions that preserve it.

“Often we appreciate the costs of loss — of flooding after clearing forests or polluted drinking water after destroying wetlands — only after it’s too late,” said Daily. The InVEST software platform makes the science accessible and actionable, and has been applied in more than 180 nations.

Read more on the Natural Capital Project website.