The Spinoza Prizes are known as the Dutch Nobel Prizes. They are the most prestigious prizes awarded to Dutch scientists, its recipients being scientists who conduct groundbreaking research. NWO hopes the newly established Stevin Prizes will one day be as prestigious as the Spinoza Prizes. Spinoza Prizes are primarily awarded for outstanding science and basic research, whereas Stevin Prizes are primarily awards for societal impact. The laureates will each receive €2.5 million for their research.
As mentioned, one of the Stevin Prizes will be awarded to Erasmus MC-affiliated virologist Marion Koopmans, whose research focuses on how viruses spread from animals to humans and how contagious diseases like Ebola and Zika can be contained. During the great Ebola outbreak of 2015, Koopmans supervised the team in charge of the Dutch mobile laboratories. The use of these mobile laboratories allowed for the amount of time needed to confirm a diagnosis to be reduced from three days to six hours. “This is not just a matter of life and death for patients, but is also crucial to a quick containment of future outbreaks,” the jury wrote. Koopmans has been in charge of Erasmus MC’s Virology department since 2013.
The other Stevin Prize was awarded to historian and terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf of Utrecht University, who is probably better known to the public at large. “De Graaf knows how to convert highly abstract concepts into practical debates, without losing sight of academic nuance,” NWO stated.
For their part, Spinoza Prizes reward outstanding basic research, but here, too, potential societal applications are a distinct bonus. Organisational psychologist Carsten de Dreu of Leiden University conducts research on conflicts, negotiation processes, decision-making and creativity in small groups. One of his findings is that bad decisions are not always made because people are stupid. Sometimes social structures and group conflicts are to blame.
Microbiologist John van der Oost of Wageningen University is one of the founding fathers of a method that allows people to alter DNA. The CRISPR-Cas technique allows scientists to remove, add or modify genes in a highly targeted manner. According to NWO, this technique is one of the greatest ever revolutions in the life sciences, and Van der Oost’s research group made a major contribution to it.
Firmness of cells
The two final Spinoza laureates both carry out research on the ‘cytoskeleton’ that gives shape, firmness and flexibility to cells. According to NWO, Utrecht University-affiliated cell biologist Anna Akhmanova is a pioneer in the use of the latest cytological techniques. Akhmanova has shown what purpose the cytoskeleton serves and what kinds of mechanisms are involved in this process.
Biophysicist Marileen Dogterom of Delft University of Technology also studies the cytoskeleton, but with a particular focus on the physics at its core. Dogterom found a way to measure the forces exerted by the tiny tubules of the cytoskeleton during cell division. Furthermore, Dogterom is the driving force between the national BaSyc (Building a Synthetic Cell) consortium, whose goal is to construct an artificial living cell.
While academics can apply for regular NWO grants themselves, they cannot apply for Spinoza Prizes. Candidates are nominated by the rectors of the various Dutch universities, individual NWO and KNAW departments and the Dutch Network of Women Professors. In the case of the Stevin Prizes, the business community is allowed to have a say in the matter as well.
The prizes will be awarded in September. Once the ceremony has concluded, the Netherlands will have 89 Spinoza laureates and two Stevin laureates.
Simon Stevin (1548-1620) was a mathematician, physicist and engineer. Among other things, he is known for his land yacht, a kind of sailing boat capable of navigating across the beach. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment. He advocated freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He also stated that God, rather than being the creator of the universe, was the universe itself.