Environmental laws and policies influence the direction of environmental science in complex ways. An emphasis on static efficiency in the design and implementation of law and policy creates incentives for scientists to ask questions that are narrowly focused on the most predictable and measurable environmental variables. Policies designed to protect or restore the emergent properties of ecosystems encourage scientists to ask questions about ecosystem dynamics and the relationship between human activities and the loss or degradation of ecosystem services. Answering such questions is essential for the ecological sciences to advance. This essay addresses three manifestations of policies that can improve understanding of ecological dynamics: the precautionary principle, adaptive management, and the ecosystem approach to environmental management.