UG nabs both Spinoza and Stevin prizes
After research financier NWO called her with the news that she’d been awarded a Stevin Prize of 2.5 million euros, Linda Steg was quiet on the phone for a while. ‘What?’, she eventually managed. ‘I have to let this sink in.’
She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else. Only her partner could know, and the people in the university communication department and journalists, as long as they kept to the embargo.
Pauline Kleingeld was also overwhelmed. She has been awarded one of four Spinoza Prizes, which is also worth 2.5 million euros. She hadn’t seen it coming. ‘There are so many people out there doing great research.’
Both prizes are to reward the work of excellent researchers. But while the Spinoza Prize mainly focuses on fundamental scientific research, the Stevin is more concerned with social impact.
Steg is being given the prize for her work in environmental psychology. The jury said she is one of the most influential and innovative pioneers in the field. She wants to know why some people display environmentally friendly behaviour, and why others don’t.
She also wants to find out why people prioritise the greater good over their own personal comfort. Her most important discovery is that it’s not just about ‘rational’ facts or a cost-benefit assessment; moral and environmental considerations also play a large role.
She wrote an influential climate report for the UN and featured on Thomas Reuters’ ‘world’s most influential scientific minds’ list no fewer than five times.
Philosopher Kleingeld has been awarded the prize for her innovative views on the works of eighteenth-century philosopher Kant. She not only shows how Kant’s racist and sexist ideas come through in his work, but she’s also using her vision of Kant’s ethics to reach new insights in moral universalism and free will.
Because of the corona crisis, the researchers will have to miss the celebration at Bessensap, the annual conference for science communication where their wins will be announced.
They’re both okay with this, although Steg regrets she won’t be able to see her colleagues when they hear the news. ‘Last year when I got a Royal Decoration, everyone else knew when I didn’t. Now it’s the other way around, but I won’t be able to see their faces.’
Both researchers already know what they want to do with their prize money. Kleingeld wants to figure out whether her interpretation of Kant’s ethics can contribute to modern discussions about moral universalism. ‘I’m kind of going against the tide, since we’re living in the days of relativism and scepticism’, she says.
Steg wants to try and integrate her social-scientific research in climate models. ‘In the end, those models are all about human beings and human behaviour.’
In addition to Pauline Kleingeld, biophysicist Nynke Dekker at TU Delft, bio-organic chemist Jan van Hest at TU Eindhoven, and immunologist Sjaak Neefjes with the Leiden University Medical Centre have also been awarded Spinoza Prizes.
Cancer researcher Ton Schumacher at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital has been awarded the other Stevin Prize.
Steg’s Stevin Prize is the first of its kind for the UG since the prize was created in 2018. Spinoza Prizes have been around for much longer. Previous winners at the UG were physicist George Sawatsky (1996), medical biologist Dirkje Postma (2000), and chemist Ben Feringa (2004), who went on to win the Nobel Prize.
After the UG not winning anything for a decade, migratory bird expert Theunis Piersma was awarded the prize in 2014, and geneticist and current rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga won it in 2015. In 2016, philosopher Lodi Nauta and engineering physicist Bart van Wees were awarded the prize. In 2019, astronomer Amina Helmi won.
UKrant interviewed Pauline Kleingeld en Linda Steg:
The quest for a just world
Does the world have a set of universal values? Principles that apply to every single human being? UG philosopher Pauline Kleingeld is using the money from her Spinoza Prize to find out. ‘A lot of people nowadays don’t think they exist. But I want to try anyway.’ Read the interview here.
Environmental researcher, not an activist
She was already one of the most influential psychologists in the world, but now environmental psychologist Linda Steg has been awarded the Stevin Prize (of 2.5 million euros) for her research into environmentally aware behaviour. ‘I can’t be an activist. Not if I want to be a scientist.’ Read the interview here.