News - November 27, 2014

A biologist with a mission

Roelof Kleis

In a portrait of Wageningen’s most famous biologist Arnold van Vliet you will expect some talk of nature. An even more inevitable topic is impact. Science for impact and the mission to make a difference.

The year is not over yet; there is still one month to go. But it is already clear that 2014 was an extraordinary year for the natural world. ‘A spectacular year,’ says Arnold van Vliet decidedly. And he should know. He has his finger on the pulse of nature like no one else in the Netherlands. And the patient is running a temperature: 2014 was the hottest year ever. ‘Or at least, since records began.’ You only have to look outside to see what that means. It is mid-November and there are still leaves on many of the trees: the fall is still going on. And yet it started so early. ‘The leaves began to turn in August already. Much earlier than we expected,’ says Van Vliet, patiently repeating what he had just been explaining on Vara’s Vroege Vogels [Early Birds], his regular Sunday morning radio programme. ‘In recent years we have seen autumn starting later and later. But there was a sudden cold spell in August, which made the autumn kick in. High temperatures after that delayed the turning of the leaves and in the end it was a late autumn.’

This is Van Vliet’s line of work: studying changes in the timing of cyclical natural phenomena. Phenology in biology jargon. And in particular, the way climate change affects that timing. To do this he continually appeals to the public for their knowledge. Observations by the likes of you and me, of the nature in our localities. Van Vliet has turned this ‘citizen science’ into his own specialism. Conducting research together with the general public. There are probably not very many people in the Netherlands who have never heard of the Nature Calendar, the Midge Radar, the Tick Radar, the Allergy Radar or the Splash Counter. All hits from Van Vliet’s repertoire.

It is easy enough to substantiate that claim. Van Vliet keeps track of his media activities. For years he has calculated his ‘reach’ through the media using print numbers and viewing and listening statistics. In this respect too, 2014 was a top year. ‘Last year was a record with 200 million people. Now, with six weeks still to go, I am already at 280 million people.’ For the sake of clarity: these are not ‘separate visitors’ but all the readers, viewers and listeners who could have seen or heard his message. Several explanations can be found for the success this year. Van Vliet: ‘This year we launched Alterra’s Green Monitor in the media, as well as the Midge Radar, together with the Laboratory for Entomology. This is the year of the parent bug and the spotted-wing drosophila. And then 2014 has been an extraordinary year weather-wise. On top of that,, our nature news website, is being used more and more by journalists as a reliable source of information on nature. Everything we put on there is effectively a press release.’


Van Vliet discovered the power of citizen science back during his student days in Wageningen. ‘For a final research project at the IBN (now Alterra) I came across the archives of the Dutch Phenological Observation Network. Piles of files full of citizens’ observations going back to 1868. When you analyse that data you see that temperature has a clear effect on what happens around you. Phenology has turned out to be a very good indicator for changes in weather and climate. On the basis of observations by volunteers you get a good picture of what a year looks like and how it compares with other years.’ In search of an answer to the question of how nature is changing on the global scale, Van Vliet put together an email ‘list service’ in his student room on the Haarweg. ‘A mailing list really, to improve international communication between phenologists. This way, as a student, I soon became a linchpin in the system.It was an eye-opener for me that you could exchange ideas that way and mobilize the scientific world.’

The experience provided the basis for the development of the European Phenology Network, funded by Brussels. A press release about this brought radio programme Vroege Vogels calling. ‘That programme had had a ‘pheno line’ at an earlier stage. They said they wondered whether it would be an idea to revive that with me? I had no idea that half a million people listen to Vroege Vogels every week. I had never heard of it. What do you expect, when it’s broadcast between eight and ten on a Sunday morning? Hello, I had only just left university.’

His first appeal brought in 2000 responses. And the rest is history. Van Vliet gets into the media on a regular basis. That is a talent, but there is also a clear strategy behind it. ‘You see, I want to achieve certain goals in my work. For Nature Calendar, for instance, we want to monitor timing in nature and the effects of climate change on it. We want to trace the ecological and socio-economic consequences of those changes and develop the tools with which people can adapt to them. Attention in the media is a crucial part of the process of citizen science. That attention is the motor for bringing in observations and funding. If you cannot mobilize masses of people it gets difficult.’

'Als je geen massa's op de been kunt brengen dan wordt het lastig'


Impact is the key word in everything van Vliet gets involved in. As a young lad in Haastrecht he was not much of a nature-lover. It was the stories about the threat to nature and the severe loss of biodiversity that attracted him to the biological sciences. ‘Nature documentaries on television always ended on a sad note. And they still do, really. As a secondary school student I realized things were going in the wrong direction. At some point I said to myself: I want personally to make a significant contribution to solving these problems. I just want to be able to make a different.’

It was an obvious decision to come to Wageningen. ‘In those days there was a television programme called ‘Yes Naturally’, presented by Jan-Just Bos. And he was just walking around here!’

His media fame has made Arnold van Vliet an ambassador both for his own field and for Wageningen UR. But that focus on the media does have its price. With an index of H=11, Van Vliet’s academic impact is modest. He does not publish enough. ‘You must have been talking to Rik,’ is his retort to this suggestion. Rik Leemans is his colleague and boss in the Environmental Systems Analysis chair group. Van Vliet is aware of the criticism but does not think much of it. ‘Yes, I could publish more academic articles. But what would I achieve by that, in terms of the ultimate goal I have set myself? There are various ways of generating impact. You can build an academic career and gear everything to that. And then you are a top scientist with publications in Nature and Science. And then? To me the social impact of an appearance on the TV news is much more important than yet another scientific article. It makes me happy that through my work with the Tick Radar, a lot fewer people get Lyme’s disease and we have gained a better understanding of the issues. That just does me a world of good. I think it’s great that you can achieve that.’

This focus on social impact makes Van Vliet a bit of an oddball in the academic world. He is therefore not in line for promotion, in spite of everything he has done for the university. Tenure track has no time for oddballs. ‘That is a shortcoming of the system that I come up against. When graduate schools are inspected, social relevance is one of the topics for evaluation. Our group gets maximum scores for that. That is also one of the reasons why I keep track of that social impact so carefully. But tenure track does not appreciate that. I think it is time to take a very good look at that. After all, don’t we want dialogue with the general public? Well, engaging in that dialogue takes up a lot of time. But at the moment, there is no way of making that visible in the system of evaluations. That does annoy me, but I have resigned myself to it. I’ll do my own thing.’


His own thing will soon be taking Van Vliet beyond the borders of the Netherlands. Next spring sees the launch of Nature Today, an international version of Natuurbericht. His dream, in his own words. ‘The dream of a global news service on nature. Internationally, so much data is generated which does not get any publicity. There is so much potential. There are so many questions from journalists, who don’t know who they should call about what’s going on.’ Nature Today is intended as a platform for scientists and their stories. Because who reads all those scientific articles, Van Vliet wonders out loud. ‘Scientific articles play a fundamental role in the scientific process. Absolutely. But ordinary people don’t read them. Scientists themselves hardly read any scientific articles anymore. I think they even reach more of their colleagues through a platform such as Nature Today. As a scientist you want to change things, don’t you? You want to generate knowledge that is of use to society. So tell people what’s going on.’




text: Roelof Kleis / photo: Guy Ackermans