Research

My research objective is to make conceptual advances in economics and ecology that inform 
sustainability solutions. I use a mixture of theoretical and empirical tools from both disciplines. Brief descriptions of some of my current interests are below. See my Academic Publications page for additional details, and don't hesitate to contact me if you would like to collaborate!


Informing pragmatic natural resource management:

Effectively managing fisheries and other natural resources is essential to food security, livelihoods, and sustaining diverse and productive ecosystems.  Yet resource management is caught between needs for complexity and simplicity. On the one hand, the complexity of coupled social-ecological systems pulls natural resource science towards complex models and data-hungry assessment approaches. The need for often large-scale cooperation to achieve management targets, which are as dynamic as the science, pulls resource management towards institutionally complex and (economically) expensive management.  On the other hand, many systems lack the data, and financial and institutional capital to implement even the simplest existing approaches to natural resource science and management. 

I am interested in developing pragmatic and interdisciplinary approaches to studying and managing natural resources, with explicit considerations of financial, scientific and institutional constraints. Within this theme, some overarching questions are: (i) Can we find useful theoretical insights that are not data-dependent or system-specific? (ii) How strong are tradeoffs between different resource management objectives? (iii) Are there approaches to assessment or management that produce 'pretty good' (sensu Hilborn) outcomes in many different social and ecological contexts? (iv) Are there existing but untapped data sources that might provide insightful information?

Related publications:

Bailey R, Carrella E, Axtell RL, Burgess MG, Cabral RB, Drexler M, Dorsett C, Madsen JK, Merkl A, Saul S. 2018A computational approach to managing coupled human-environmental systems: The POSEIDON model of ocean fisheries. Sustainability Science.

Burgess MG, Clemence M, McDermott GR, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2018. Five rules for pragmatic blue growth. Marine Policy 87: 331-339.

Burgess MG, Giacomini HC, Szuwalski CS, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. Describing ecosystem contexts with single-species models: A theoretical synthesis for fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 18: 264-284.

Jacobsen NS, Burgess MGAndersen KH. 2017. Efficiency of fisheries is increasing at the ecosystem level. Fish and Fisheries 18: 199-211. (Model code and web interface here.)

Szuwalski CS, Burgess MG, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. High fishery catches through trophic cascades in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 717-721. (See also Commentary in same issue.)

Burgess MG, Diekert FK, Jacobsen NS, Andersen KH, Gaines SD. 2016. Remaining questions in the case for balanced harvesting. Fish and Fisheries 17: 1216-1226.

Burgess MG. 2015. Consequences of fleet diversification in managed and unmanaged fisheries. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 72: 54-70. (Open-access arXiv version here.)

Burgess MG, Drexler M, Axtell RL, Bailey RM, Watson JR, Ananthanaryanan A, Cabral RB, Carrella E, Clemence M, Costello C, Dorsett C, Gaines SD, Klein ES, Koralus P, Leonard G, Levin SA, Little LR, Lynham J, Madsen JK, Merkl A, Owashi B, Saul SE, van Putten IE, Wilcox S. The role of agent-based modeling in systems-based fishery management. Submitted.


Fig. 2 from Burgess et al. Marine Policy 87: 331 (2018): Sometimes what appears to be inefficient 
(e.g., point 2) 
is actually 
efficient when considering a larger set of objectives.

Fig. 1 from Burgess et alFish and Fisheries 18: 264 (2017): Interactions with other ecosystem
components need not bias single-species stock assessments if these ecosystem components 
vary on much faster or much slower time scales than the stock being assessed.


Mechanistic approaches to conservation:

Current approaches to assessing threats of collapse and extinction to species are predominantly phenomenological, inferring threats from past population declines, high current harvest rates, species rarity, or life history characteristics correlated with threat histories of other species.  Though these approaches have provided valuable insights into threat patterns, they tend to identify already declining species rather than predicting future declines.  Part of my research focuses on developing mechanistic approaches to predict future threats of extinction and severe decline to populations. These approaches identify combinations of biological and socioeconomic conditions that are likely to eventually cause high mortality rates and population declines before they occur. My past research in this theme has primarily focused on overharvesting threats. 

Related publications:




Burgess MG, Fredston-Hermann A, Tilman D, Loreau M, Gaines SD. Broadly inflicted stressors make limits to ecological similarity more restrictive.  Submitted.

Fig. 4 from Burgess et al. PNAS 110: 15943 (2013): Overfishing threats in multispecies 
fisheries can be predicted decades before overfishing actually occurs, by comparing 
susceptibilities of all species in the fishery to those of greatest economic importance. 

 
Fig. S5 from Burgess et alPNAS 114: 3945 (2017): Species whose range areas shrink
as their abundances decline are at an increased risk of overharvesting. 
Our review of empirical evidence suggests that terrestrial mammals
and birds experience such range contraction more commonly than 
marine fish and invertebrates.

The ecological economics of global sustainability:

Food, water, energy, and economic systems already place enormous pressure on the Earth’s natural ecosystems through land clearing, carbon emissions, nutrient and pesticide pollution, overfishing, plastic pollution, and a host of other impacts. With the scale of human demands on natural resources projected to continue to increase this century as a result of rising population and affluence, finding ways to reduce the environmental impacts of society will be critical to avoiding complex tradeoffs between meeting the needs of 10 billion people and sustaining the planet’s most important natural life-support systems.  The challenge of increasing the environmental efficiency of the global economy has two parts.  First, we must find biophysical and technological opportunities to increase efficiency.  Second, we must find ways to implement solutions on the ground, a challenge that often encounters social, political and economic obstacles.  I am interested in addressing both of these questions at large (regional, global) spatial scales.

Related publications:

Tallis HM, Hawthorne PL, Polasky S, Reid J, Beck MW, Brauman K, Bielicki JM, Binder S, Burgess MGCassidy E, Clark A, Fargione J, Game ET, Gerber J, Isbell F, Kiesecker J, McDonald R, Metian M, Molnar JL, Mueller ND, O'Connell CO, Ovando D, Troell M, Boucher T, McPeek B. In press. An attainable global vision for conservation and human well-being. Frontiers in the Ecology and the Environment.

Burgess MG, Gaines SD. 2018. The scale of life and its lessons for humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 6328-6330. (Companion to Bar-On et al. 2018

Szuwalski CS, Burgess MG, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. High fishery catches through trophic cascades in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 717-721. (See also Commentary in same issue.)

Williams R*, Burgess MG*, Ashe E, Gaines SD, Reeves RR. 2016U.S. seafood import restriction presents opportunity and risk. Science 354: 1372-1374. (*Equal contribution) 

Burgess MG, Diekert FK, Jacobsen NS, Andersen KH, Gaines SD. 2016. Remaining questions in the case for balanced harvesting. Fish and Fisheries 17: 1216-1226.

Fig. 2 from Burgess et al. Fish and Fisheries 17: 1216 (2016):
Most projected new seafood demand comes from preference- and wealth-
related diet changes. This means that meeting this demand with new types 
of fish via more 'balanced' harvesting may be challenging. (Projections from

Adaptation of fig. from Williams, Burgess, et al. Science 354: 1372 (2016)
A new U.S. seafood import restriction requires countries exporting seafood to the U.S. 
to demonstrate that their exporting fisheries monitor and protect marine mammals at 
a standard comparable in effectiveness to U.S. domestic standards. We argued that 
many developing countries will need to build capacity to be able to comply at a high standard, 
and that small Latin American countries and Small Island Developing States-which rely heavily 
on exporting seafood to the U.S.-should be prioritized for international capacity-building
assistance.


Conceptual synergies between ecology and economics:

Ecology and economics have many conceptual parallels. Both ultimately study organisms or organism-constructed entities (e.g. businesses, social groups), and their interactions, behaviour, and evolution. Yet ecology and economics have highly divergent histories as academic disciplines. As a result, they often have different but strongly complementary approaches to conceptually similar problems. I am interested in exploring conceptual synergies between ecology and economics. For example, what can econometrics offer fisheries research and other branches of ecology? What can ecological models offer economic theory? For example, my recent paper on fleet diversity in fisheries relies heavily on an analog of ecological competition theory applied to fishing fleet dynamics. Others (e.g. Lord Robert May) have shown that ecological theory is useful in understanding financial risk. There are surely many other fruitful opportunities for conceptual exchange, which I am interested in exploring in future research.

Related publications:

Burgess MG, Gaines SD. 2018. The scale of life and its lessons for humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 6328-6330. (Companion to Bar-On et al. 2018 

Burgess MG. 2015. Consequences of fleet diversification in managed and unmanaged fisheries. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 72: 54-70. (Open-access arXiv version here.)


Fig. 1 from Burgess and Gaines PNAS 201807019 (2018): The global carbon budget is ~30% as large as global NPP, but the carbon and energy intensities of the global economy have been steadily decreasing for decades. 
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