She made Newsweek's 1997 "Century Club" of 100 people to watch in the new millennium. She has to her credit five papers that have appeared in Science and Nature. At 35, Gretchen Daily has already made a name for herself as a leading voice in ecology--and not just because she toils hard in the field studying ecosystems. Daily has carved a niche in ecological economics, an emerging discipline that argues for saving habitats and species not only for their intrinsic ethical value, but for what they're worth in cold hard cash.
Daily is emblematic of a new generation of ecologists who are motivated by strong environmental values and generally feel comfortable surfing the breakers where science washes onto the shores of policy. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she worked as a researcher for the Worldwatch Institute's Sandra Postel on issues such as global water shortages; then as a grad student she broke new ground in the biology department by completing a doctorate that blended science and policy. She studied which plants and animals were likely to survive land development in a Rocky Mountain ecosystem and also explored which species society would want to save. She stayed on at Stanford as a researcher, often collaborating with population biologist Paul Ehrlich.
Daily soon joined a few other pioneering ecologists in blazing a trail in ecosystem services, a new area that attempts to put a price tag on natural habitats. Ecological economists might argue, for example, that preserving a watershed is a cheaper way for a city to clean its water supply than is building a purification plant. Daily sees this as a "promising" new approach to environmental protection, because it appeals to businesspeople. She admits it's a gamble: It might be hard, say, to make a case on economic grounds for preserving a wetland rather than building a new shopping mall. But it's a risk that must be taken, she says: "The ethical arguments for saving biodiversity and the environment are not winning the war."
Daily tries to avoid being viewed--and possibly dismissed--as a one-sided environmental activist. She makes explicit her assumptions, for example when she suggests that preserving native habitat next to farmers' fields can help boost crop yields by contributing pollinating insects. And she lays out options without "making a judgment as to which is better or worse." Daily says scientist-advocates are more apt to be taken seriously if they present a consensus, such as by running with a pack of authors when airing commentaries.
For Daily, there's no question that her work is motivated by caring about the environment. "If I were not in this area of science, I would definitely be an environmentalist. But I try to just think about all these issues as problems to be tackled somewhat dispassionately."