News - March 14, 2013

Is there an honorary doctor in the house?

Three scientists will receive honorary doctorates to celebrate the anniversary of Wageningen's dies natalis. Resource looked into why these three and why the university has embraced this tradition.
text: Rob Ramaker and Roelof Kleis.


Ex-Prime Minister of the Netherlands Jan-Peter Balkenende got one, as did Queen Beatrix and writer Harry Mulisch. The Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela have more the fifty. Margaret Thatcher was passed over for one by her alma mater Oxford University. Served her right for cutting back on higher education. What are we talking about? Honorary doctorates. True to tradition, at the anniversary celebration - held this year on 15 March - Wageningen University will bestow this honour on three top scientists: Graham Farquhar, Richard Lenski and Brain Staskawicz.
The search for the honorary doctors began in summer 2012, when Wageningen professors were asked by rector magnificus Martin Kropff to nominate candidates. 'During our staff meeting someone came up with the idea of proposing Richard Lenski,' says Arjan de Visser, associate professor of Genetics. 'And asked if I would do it, since I had been a postdoc of his.' De Visser was all for the nomination, as he considers Lenski an inspiring scientist. To give him a sporting chance, De Visser wrote a persuasive letter of recommendation, which went off to the rector signed by other admirers such as Louise Vet and Willem de Vos.
The university has two clear requirements for honorary doctors, and De Visser's letter had to demonstrate that they were met by his candidate. The scientists should have an 'undisputed' reputation and a link with the mission of the university. 'The first was no issue in Lenski's case,' says De Visser. 'I was shocked afresh by his CV. He has had 38 publications in Nature and Science.' As for the second point, the biologist leads an institute that applies fundamental scientific insights to practical problems. Which is typical of Wageningen.
In person
There are practical considerations when choosing honorary doctors, too, explains Paul Struik, who nominated plant scientist Farquhar. 'You look for someone who both deserves it and is likely to enjoy receiving it. And he mustn't have so many honorary doctorates already that he could play happy families with then.' Once a potential candidate has been picked, someone checks whether they would be able to come and collect their honorary doctorate in person. It's not much of a party without the guest of honour, after all. Until   then, the chosen one is not let into the secret - at least in theory. The university has made a conscious choice only to consider academics for the honour, explains rector Kropff. 'We have other prizes for other achievements. Like the silver medal Kofi Annan received a couple of years ago.'
Apart from De Visser and Struik, five others sent in nominations this time. All the candidates were men. Kropff cannot come up with the name of the last woman to receive an honorary doctorate in Wageningen. There is an obvious explanation for the low proportion of women nominated. 'There are relatively few women professors in our field. But that is going to change.' The seven candidates were considered by a committee of five professors from all the fields at the university, which is chaired by Just Vlak, emeritus professor of Virology. The committee went into conclave, jokes Vlak, to decide who deserved an honorary doctorate. 'We assess the nominated candidates on a number of points. Picture it as a table in which scientists get crosses against their name per category.' The committee strives to be objective but we should not imagine that it is a precise 'mathematical exercise', says Vlak. He did not find it difficult to make a selection this time, anyway. 'Three people stood out clearly.' The trio was approved without hesitation by the executive board, which puts the official nominations to the Academic Board.
Very honoured
The three will receive their honorary doctorates on 15 March, and Staskawicz will say a word of thanks on their behalf. There is not time for more than that during the ceremony, but they will each give a masterclass in the morning. It seems a lot of bother just for a brief ceremonial moment, but the university has plenty of reason to uphold this tradition, says Kropff. 'An honorary doctorate brightens up the ceremony. And you also strengthen the ties between these leading academics and the university. They become Wageningen's ambassadors and visiting cards. They put it on their CVs and they are proud of it. An honorary doctorate leads to collaboration as well. Students going on internships, for instance.'
It is interesting for the nominators, too, to have a visit from a top scientist. During their few days in Wageningen, the guests will give lectures and a lot of networking will go on. All the PhD students will be put through their paces, says Paul Struik. They will present their work to Graham Farquhar, who will give them feedback on it. De Visser is organizing a special symposium in honour of Lenski, while Pierre de Wit will get Staskawicz to Wageningen on sabbatical later this year.
The degree is a mark of recognition for the honorary doctors. They are not attached to the university, and the degree carries no rights or responsibilities - not even a title they can use. But they are all keen to come and get it: they are 'very honoured', 'thrilled' and 'touched' by the gesture. Scientists are only human.
The honorary doctors: an introduction
Graham Farquhar , distinguished professor at Australian National University
Meteorology, Plant Physiology, Plant Sciences. Became famous primarily for his plant research on water efficiency and photosynthesis, the process by which plants fix energy from the sun. His research focused on the link between photosynthesis and climate change and he served on the IPCC climate change panel. 'His strength is that he can apply fundamental insights to global processes,' says nominator Paul Struik, professor of Crop Physiology. Farquhar received an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp in 2006.
Richard Lenski, professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University
Evolution in a test tube is Lenski's field. For 25 years he has been tracking the evolution of twelve strains of bacteria in incredible detail. 'He was the first both to have such detailed data and to have a really good grasp of the theory,' says Arjan de Visser of the Genetics chair group, a colleague of nominator Bas Zwaan. Thanks to his famous experiment, he communicates about science with the general public a great deal. This is Lenski's first honorary doctorate.
Brian Staskawicz, professor of Plant Biology and Microbiology at the University of California
Staskawicz is a pioneer in the war between pathogenic bacteria and their plant victims. He discovered a bacterial 'attack gene'. This gene contains the information for the protein that helps plants to attack. 'This research is of interest to Wageningen scientists because it looks for biological resistance in plants instead of chemical defence,' says nominator Pierre de Wit. No honorary doctorate graces Staskawicz's CV to date.
Who went before them?  
David Baulcombe (UK), Plant scientist, Cambridge University
Daniel Pauly, (Fr), Fisheries scientist, University of British Columbia

Walter Willet (US), Nutrition scientist, Harvard University
Robert McNeill Alexander (UK), Zoologist, University of Leeds
Richard Leakey (Ken), Paleoanthropologist, Stony Brook University  

Partha Dasgupta (Ind), Economist, Cambridge University
Per Pinstrup-Andersen (Den), Agricultural economist, Cornell University and University of Copenhagen
Nevin Scrimshaw, (US), Nutrition scientist, MIT, died in February 2013

Gene Likens (US), Ecologist,  Yale University, Rutgers University (among others)
Chris Somerville (US), Professor of Alternative Energy, University of California