Spinoza life support can’t save godwits

If the province of Friesland does not provide more funding, then Theunis Piersma’s research on godwits, a species of birds in the south-western corner of Friesland, is in danger. ‘The project is on ‘Spinoza life support’, but I cannot keep that up for much longer.’

The migratory bird expert and Spinoza prize winner began his research on the bird in south-western Friesland in 2004. At that time, there was virtually no one interested in doing research on Dutch meadow birds. Nowadays, it is a different story: the godwit has been named the Dutch national bird, and the province of Friesland wants there to be 10,000 breeding pairs by 2020.

‘But in order to do that, you have to know something about the status of the birds’, Piersma says. ‘You have to monitor them, you have to know where their nests are, who their parents are, and how many offspring they have.’

Pulling the plug

He has that information because of research which has been going on for 12 years. That is beneficial for the government, which gets a significant amount of this necessary research for ‘free’. But in recent years, financing has become more harder to come by And when Friesland made clear last fall that they would not have any more money for the research, it became even trickier.

‘I could have pulled the plug then’, Piersma says. ‘But with such a long-term project, you can really only do that once. So I put the research on Spinoza life support.’

But the 2.5 million euros that Piersma received in 2014 for his scientific research is not supposed to be allocated to that. Furthermore, there is not much of that money left.


Sixty per cent of the research costs – the salaries of the researchers involved and the material costs – are paid via the RUG from various subsidies that Piersma has received. But 270,000 euros has to come from other sources, which include the money for ten research assistants who do the fieldwork.

‘Out of that, I have gotten 150,000 euros from the Ministry of Economic Affairs’, Piersma says. ‘’That should take care of it for a while’, they said. ‘That’s all fine and good, but that only really means that we are falling behind less quickly. We still need 120,000 euros this year.’

The international stage

Piersma wants to keep the project going for another five years, but there is no sound basis for that. Governments have to take responsibility, Piersma says. He questions whether we really want to save the godwits, or if that is just lip service for an international stage. ‘If you take this seriously, then you have to provide for it, especially in light of the many millions of euros which have been spent on meadow bird management and how its benefits remain unclear.’

The province of Friesland is seeking more money in the meantime. ‘We underscore the importance of this research’, alderman Johannes Kramer stated in the Leeuwarder Courant on Thursday. ‘We are looking into whether that will be possible and how.’