2011 Balzan Prize for Theoretical Biology or Bioinformatics
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 18.11.2011
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am deeply honored to be one of this year’s recipients of the Balzan Prize, and am especially grateful to the Foundation for its recognition of my fields of research in ecology and evolution, which are central to basic knowledge of the living world. These fields also are vitally important to the future of humanity through their applications in the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainability of terrestrial and aquatic resources, and for understanding biogeochemical cycles affecting the productivity of the biosphere on which civilization depends. However, few other fields of science receive less institutional support, due to the politics of unsustainable environmental exploitation and religious fundamentalism, and competition with other fields of science that accrue more research funding.
The Foundation’s strong commitment to ecology and evolution is evident from the numerous Prizes awarded for work in these fields, and I am fortunate to have known or met most of those recipients. Empirical progress in ecology and evolution depends on theory more than in any other area of biology, so it is also gratifying to see that half of those Prizes are for theory. For example, Prize recipient Sewall Wright was among the three founders of the modern synthesis of genetics with Darwin’s theory of evolution. My theories of evolution are to a large extent based on his work. In turn, Prize winners Ilkka Hanski and Peter and Rosemary Grant employed my theories on stochastic population dynamics and phenotypic evolution in their empirical studies.
To join this distinguished group, I benefited from interaction with many superb teachers, students, postdocs, colleagues and conservationists. I especially thank my doctoral advisors in population genetics and ecology, Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and my postdoctoral advisor in population genetics, James Crow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who gave me the freedom and encouragement to develop my ideas, while providing sage guidance in the stimulating research environments of their laboratories.
My first job at the University of Chicago allowed me to concentrate on research at a crucial career stage. My initial work on the evolution of correlated characters and stochastic population dynamics was mostly done alone, although I would like to thank my first close colleagues, Stevan Arnold and Douglas Schemske, for collaboration on some of my most influential work on the measurement of natural selection, and the evolution of plant breeding systems.
Andy Stahl of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund recruited me as the key expert on what became the biggest environmental legal battle of the decade in the United States, conservation of the northern spotted owl, for which I developed and applied new theory in metapopulation dynamics and stochastic demography. Georgina Mace of the Zoological Society of London involved me as coauthor to draft the Red List Criteria used by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) for categorizing species extinction risk. Peter Kareiva, now chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, invited my participation for five years on the Recovery Science Review Panel advising the Northwest Fisheries Science Center on the restoration of wild salmon populations in the western United States.
My longest collaboration has been with Steinar Engen and Bernt-Erik Sæther at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, where I hold a part-time appointment studying stochastic population dynamics. I am especially grateful to colleagues at Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, for recruiting me into my current position as Royal Society Research Professor, again allowing me the freedom to concentrate on research.
My greatest debt is to my parents, who gave me not only good genes but also an environment promoting intellectual development. My mother, who is here today, was a biology teacher and inspired my interest in nature.
Apparently, I was her best student.
Thank you all.
Russell Scott Lande