Published online 10 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/457772b

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Dutch university slashes evolution staff

Leiden researchers launch legal challenge over sackings.

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.

The scientists are challenging the legality of the dismissals in court, and have launched a petition that has been signed by more than 3,000 researchers worldwide. They claim that their jobs have been eliminated in favour of jobs in molecular biology. Around 30 faculty members will remain on the staff at the university's Institute of Biology.

Like all universities in the Netherlands, Leiden is experiencing the consequences of a decision by science minister Ronald Plasterk, a former molecular geneticist, to introduce greater competition in the scientific community.

Jacques van AlphenJacques van Alphen's job is one of those due to go.J. van Alphen

Last September, the government decided to transfer €100 million (US$130 million) of its budget for universities to the NWO, the Dutch granting agency, for distribution through national competition. The sudden shortfall has meant that universities with little financial buffering, such as Leiden, are having to cut into their own flesh. Leiden found itself with a shortfall of €10 million — €2.5 million of which it passed on to the Institute of Biology.

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.

“There will be no one left who can teach natural selection.”


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.

The dismissed evolutionary biologists point out that the University of Groningen is the only other centre in the country that teaches traditional evolutionary biology. "What's happening in Leiden is a real pity," says Serge Daan, dean of science at Groningen, which has been able to absorb most of the cutbacks passed on from the NWO decision. "In biology you need an integrative approach — students need to understand how things operate on the functional, population level as well as the molecular level."

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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.

"There is little focus on the important middle ground between this and molecular evolution, which by its nature does not bring much money into universities," says Olivieri.

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has also voiced its concern about the Leiden decision. 

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