Evolution in the News - March 2009
by Do-While Jones

Darwin Slashed

Dutch evolutionary professors donít have much to celebrate on Darwinís birthday.

We hate to see anyone lose his or her job, but there are some economic realities that have to be taken into account.

The Year of Darwin has got off to a bad start in the Netherlands, where a national reorganization of university budgets has led Leiden University to sack its classical evolutionary-biology staff.

"There will be no one left who can teach natural selection," says population ecologist Jacques van Alphen, one of half a dozen tenured professors who will lose their jobs on 1 March. Some technicians and postdocs will also be fired. 1

The Netherlands isnít exactly a cesspool of creationism. Itís not personal, itís just business.

Mathematician Sjoerd Verduyn Lunel, dean of natural sciences, says the institute considered carefully where it would trim. "We applied the same criteria for identifying where to make the cuts as the government uses to fund the universities," he says. The list of criteria includes factors such as the numbers of students and income from competitive grants.

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The molecular biosciences have been more successful in attracting grants than evolutionary biology at Leiden, Verduyn Lunel says. "It is a sad situation, but if you have a government strategy to increase quality through competition, how else can you implement it? There has been a growing discrepancy in evolutionary biology over the past few years which everyone knew about." Jobs in molecular evolution and ecology have survived the cuts involved in the Leiden decision. 2

There is real value in real sciences, such as molecular biology and genetics. Evolutionary biology isnít really scienceóitís just idle speculation of no importance. It is an unnecessary luxury when money is tight. It isnít just the Dutch who recognize the worthlessness of evolutionary biology.

Isabelle Olivieri, a population biologist at the University of Montpellier in France and president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, sees the fate of the Leiden scientists as a sign of more widely fading political support. She points out that the French National Research Agency has recently substituted a proposed national research programme on general evolutionary biology with one focused on biodiversity and conservation. 3

Evolutionary biology still remains strong in the United States because of the political and religious ramifications. But, with the U.S. economy the way it is now, perhaps the same thing might happen here.

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Footnotes:

1 Nature, 12 February 2009, ďDutch university slashes evolution staffĒ, pages 772-3
2 ibid.
3 ibid.