Science - June 11, 2009

THREE SPINOZA PRIZES: HOW DOES WAGENINGEN DO IT?

Entomologist Marcel Dicke in 2007; microbiologist Willem de Vos in 2008; and it’s a bullseye again this year. Ecologist Marten Scheffer has won the Spinoza prize. The third time in a row that a Wageningen scientist scoops the ‘Dutch Nobel Prize’. How does Wageningen do it?

nieuws_3354.jpg
Professor Martin Kropff , rector magnificus of Wageningen University, says it’s a matter of selecting well and then presenting well. ‘And I only propose candidates who are serious contenders’, says Kropff. ‘You need to make a good analysis of the scientific achievements of your researchers, and put them in the limelight. It is very important that the proposal is really well-written. We pay a lot of attention to that internally.

‘The selection committee makes an initial selection. And the non-specialists on the committee should understand from the start just how ground-breaking the work of your candidate is. Only after this stage do we send a selection of the proposals to peer-reviewers elsewhere. These are the specialists who know in more detail what it’s all about. Three times in a row is very extraordinary. It confirms how much talent there is in Wageningen. Across a broad area there is a lot of top quality science here.’

Rudy Rabbinge , University Professor at Wageningen University: ‘There is a clear explanation for this. It’s question of investing in excellence. This is nothing new. It began with the establishment of the research schools, creating the conditions for excellent research. That is bearing fruit now. Three Spinoza prizes in a row, that really is a top-class achievement for a small university like ours. And it also means that we are doing research with a social impact. That was our aim when we opted for the life sciences. We can expect more in the coming years.’

‘In a good research climate you get outstanding achievements,’ says Leen van den Oever , director of the Dutch Institute for Biology, the professional association for biologists. ‘To me it’s clear that Scheffer’s work has been done in an environment where research and education are well organized. If you’ve got the financing sorted out, you can expect this sort of achievement. And to add to that, you have the good luck to have a few extremely good people on board. It is not for nothing that Wageningen profiles itself as the City of Life Sciences. It’s simply true. The fundamental structure in Wageningen is very good. There is a fertile soil here, and good things are bound to grow on it.’ / Roelof Kleis and Albert Sikkema

FREE-THINKER SCHEFFER RECEIVES SPINOZA PRIZE
Marten Scheffer, Professor of Aquatic ecology and water quality management received the Spinoza prize on 9 June from the Dutch organization for scientific research, the NWO. He will get 2.5 million euros to spend on research of his choice.

The international jury praised Scheffer as a free-thinker and a scientific innovator. The Spinoza prize is the biggest scientific prize in the Netherlands.

Scheffer has won the prize for his pioneering work on the concept of critical transitions in complex ecosystems, the climate and ancient civilizations. He has co-founded two international institutes for interdisciplinary research. The jury called him an inspiring scientist who repeatedly crosses and pushes back the boundaries between different scientific fields. ‘The Spinoza committee eagerly looks forward to seeing how he will use the prize to take his research forward.’

The NWO’s aim in awarding the prize is to stimulate high-quality innovative research in the Netherlands. Besides Scheffer, Spinoza prizes also went to Professor of Physics Dr. Albert van den Berg of the University of Twente, and Professor of Neurology Dr. Michel Ferrari of the Leiden University Medical Centre.
Scheffer’s Spinoza prize is the third in a row for Wageningen UR. / Albert Sikkema

Re:act