David Tilman


2014 Balzan Prize for basic/applied Plant Ecology

For his huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.

David Tilman was born in the United States, and was an undergraduate and completed a PhD at the University of Michigan. Since 1976 he has been on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, where he is Regents Professor and holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology. Since 2012, he has also held a chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He is a distinguished plant ecologist who has made remarkable contributions to both the theoretical and experimental development of the subject. In scientific papers and in two landmark monographs, he built the theory of plant resource competition, showing how multiple species of plants might coexist or exclude each other as they competed for a limited range of essential resources.
To test these ideas he initiated a series of large-scale experiments at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve facility owned by the University of Minnesota. The many insights that arose from these experiments provide the fundamental basis for much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured. Tilman has also been a pioneer in exploring whether biodiversity per se affects ecosystem functioning. Again using large-scale experiments at Cedar Creek, he showed that more biodiverse communities could be more productive and more resilient through what has become known as niche complementarity.
In addition to his core research on plant ecology, Tilman has made major contributions to plankton biology, and, in recent decades, to important environmental debates such as the role of biofuels in energy production and strategies to ensure global food security. He is the most well-cited and leading plant ecologist in the world today.