General rules for environmental management to prioritise social ecological systems research based on a value of information approach.
Globally, billions of dollars are invested each year to help understand the dynamics of social ecological systems (SES) in bettering both social and environmental outcomes. However, there is no scientific consensus on which aspect of an SES is most important and urgent to understand; particularly given the realities of limited time and money. Here we use a simulation-based "value of information" approach to examine where research will deliver the most important information for environmental management in four SESs representing a range of real-life environmental issues. We find that neither social nor ecological information is consistently the most important: instead, researchers should focus on understanding the primary effects of their management actions. Thus, when managers are undertaking social actions the highest research priority should be understanding the dynamics of social groups. Alternatively, when manipulating ecological systems it will be most important to quantify ecological population dynamics. Synthesis and applications. Our results provide a standard assessment to determine the uncertain social ecological systems (SES) component with the highest expected impact for management outcomes. First, managers should determine the structure of their SES by identifying social and ecological nodes. Second, managers should identify the qualitative nature of the network, by determining which nodes are linked, but not the strength of those interactions. Finally, managers should identify the actions available to them to intervene in the SES. From these steps, managers will be able to identify the SES components that are closest to the management action(s), and it is these nodes and interactions that should receive priority research attention to achieve effective environmental decision making.