Historical story

NWO Spinoza Prize 2014 winners announced

Every year in June the tension rises to great heights in academic Netherlands. It is time again for the presentation of the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands. The four winners of 2014 are physicist Dirk Bouwmeester, archaeologist Corinne Hofman, environmental biotechnologist Mark van Loosdrecht and ecologist Theunis Piersma. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) awards these 'Dutch Nobel Prizes' annually for top Dutch research.

  • Dirk Bouwmeester, Professor of Physics at Leiden University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Corinne Hofman, Professor of Archeology of the Caribbean at Leiden University.
  • Mark van Loosdrecht, Professor of Environmental Biotechnology at Delft University of Technology.
  • Theunis Piersma, Professor of Migratory Bird Ecology at the University of Groningen.

The Spinoza Prizes have been awarded every year since 1995 by NWO, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Each time, three or four scientists go home with the prize. It consists not only of a statuette, but also a sum of money of 2.5 million euros.

They can spend that money on their own research. For example, they can use it to appoint new, young researchers, buy expensive equipment or bring foreign experts to the Netherlands.

The Spinoza Prize is therefore the highest Dutch prize you can win as a researcher. But how does NWO determine who deserves it? Every year, NWO asks the highest administrators of the academic world to nominate candidates. At every university, the rector magnificus – the president of the university – propose one of its researchers in a letter of recommendation. Chairmen of other research institutes may also recommend one or two researchers.

The awarding of the Spinoza Prizes is of course not the only thing NWO is involved in. The organization is not to be missed for scientists in the Netherlands. It finances thousands of researchers who work at universities and institutes and determines the direction of Dutch science with grants and research programmes.


When all the recommendations have been received, the members of a special NWO committee sit down together. They try to compare all candidates with each other. Who has the best track record nationally and internationally? And who, in addition to their research, also makes time for other things such as inspiring leadership or supervising young researchers?

And then the winner must also be able to spend the money well on meaningful research and he must not be so old that he is almost retiring.

And as if all that were not enough, there is another criterion that the NWO committee must take into account:the winners may not all come from the same field. The committee therefore tries as much as possible to divide the prizes into three different categories:alpha/gamma, beta and life/medical.

The Spinoza Prize is named after Baruch de Spinoza, a famous Dutch philosopher from the 17 e century. His ideas fit within rationalism, the conviction that man can acquire knowledge by thinking carefully. Spinoza is one of the fifty themes included in the Canon of the Netherlands. His face was also on the old 1000 guilder bills.


And then, after much deliberation, the time has finally come:the announcement. The chairmen of the universities and research institutes must keep secret who they have nominated to NWO. So even for the candidates it is a big surprise when they are told that they have won the bounty. Fortunately, they still have some time to think about what they will do with the money:the official presentation of the figurine and the check will not take place until the autumn.

The winners of previous years