Spinoza and Stevin Prizes lay basis for groundbreaking research

Uitreiking Spinoza- en Stevinpremies 2021

On 13 October last, six scientists were presented with the NWO Spinoza Prize and Stevin Prize by caretaker Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven in the Amare theatre in The Hague. The prizes are the highest awards for science in the Netherlands.

During the presentation ceremony, media studies scholar José van Dijck, cyber security expert Bart Jacobs, world-leading specialist in electrochemistry Marc Koper, psychologist Judi Mesman, professor of quantum nanoscience Lieven Vandersypen and immunologist Maria Yazdanbakhsh revealed how they plan to spend the prize money of 2.5 million euros each for their research.

Groundbreaking research

The NWO prizes will enable the laureates to conduct groundbreaking research into urgent scientific and social challenges in their respective disciplines. One area of Maria Yazdanbakhsh’s research, for example, is the highly topical issue of the development of vaccines. Most studies of the human immune system are conducted on Europeans and Americans, but the immune response of people in other regions of the world such as Africa is very different. That is due to local factors such as parasitic infections, which weaken the immune system’s response to an allergen. While this is beneficial with a condition such as asthma, it also means that the immune system responds less well to vaccines, which are therefore less effective. Yazdanbakhsh is seeking a solution for this problem: “We intend to use the funding to develop vaccines more quickly and produce better vaccines where they are really needed.”

Marc Koper’s research, on the other hand, plays a major role in making our future society more sustainable. Koper: “The most obvious way of improving sustainability is through electrification. An important challenge therefore is to find more efficient ways of storing electricity.” Another of the laureates, Lieven Vandersypen, investigates the enormous computing power of quantum mechanics. Vandersypen: “By using the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics we can exponentially accelerate the discovery of solutions for some of the problems we face and remove a bottleneck in the development of new materials for energy and new medicines.”

Urgent problems

Legislation and regulation in this country is based on the premise that everyone has equal opportunities, but that is not always the case in practice. The subject of Judi Mesman’s research is the role of social norms and behavioural patterns in shaping our society, so that by understanding those patterns we can reduce discrimination and promote equal opportunity. “The Stevin Prize gives me the chance to expand the focus of my research to programmes that train professionals to recognise the implicit standards and values instilled in the young people and families they work with. This is an aspect that receives too little attention, despite the impact it has on our society.”

The digitisation of society also has a huge influence on how we live and Spinoza laureate José van Dijck explores how we manage the digital society at a time when the public domain is becoming increasingly dependent on the digital products of a few technology companies. “We must endeavour to anchor public values in the platform society, not just in terms of the technology, but also in legislation.” Like Stevin laureate Bart Jacobs, Van Dijck is an advocate of alternative platforms. Jacobs has discovered vulnerabilities in the Dutch public transport chip card, bank passes, voting computers, ‘smart’ meters and car keys, as well as in countless databases containing personal data. “Existing networks are manipulative networks,” says Jacobs, who has devoted himself to creating a safer and friendlier online environment for users. Jacobs and Van Dijck will both be investing part of their prize in a joint research project that explores the possibilities of an alternative social network.

More about the laureates

The research of the laureates has been captuered in short videos. Watch them below.

Spinoza laureate 2021 - José van Dijck

Spinoza laureate 2021 - Marc Koper

Spinoza laureate 2021 - Lieven Vandersypen

Spinoza laureate 2021 - Maria Yazdanbakhsh

Stevin laureate 2021 - Bart Jacobs

Stevin laureate 2021 - Judi Mesman