Endangered Theoretical Biology Group at Leiden University

Andre M. de Roos

Many scientists working in Mathematical/Theoretical Biology, Ecology, or Evolutionary Biology, will be familiar with the work of the Theoretical Biology group at Leiden University, led by Hans Metz since 1985. A number of fundamental contributions in the field of modeling animal behavior, structured populations and, of late, adaptive dynamics and evolutionary theory have been the products of this group during the last 20-25 years. This group is now threatened with extinction as a result of a re-channeling of most biological funding toward molecular biology. Notwithstanding the importance of these latter disciplines, to disband a research group with such an outstanding reputation I consider intolerable. Hence, I kindly ask you to consider the request of Hans Metz to write a letter of support to be sent to the Dutch Minister of Science and Education, the Rector of Leiden University and the Dean of the Leiden Faculty of Sciences, voicing your opinion on this policy.

Below you will find:

Dear Friend,
My apologies if this [letter] reaches you more than once. I am having it sent through different routes in order to give it the greatest possible distribution. (I even kindly ask you to relay it to colleagues whom to your knowledge might be willing to help and who are not on one of the lists through which this mail was sent to you.)

The Leiden Faculty of Sciences is scrapping my Theoretical Biology group.

The Faculty has to implement a 20% budget cut, mainly as the result of a countrywide reduction in enrollment in the sciences. Biology student numbers also decrease but much less so than in the other sciences. The Institute of Ecological and Evolutionary Sciences (EEW), which houses my Theoretical Biology group has kept attracting roughly the same number of students for the past years. The present yearly budget deficit of the EEW is 15%, that of the faculty 20% and at the EEW we are having a budget reduction of 55% imposed on us. According to the plan of the Dean of the Faculty, the preliminary form of which is currently circulating under wraps, the smallest departments, Astronomy and Mathematics, will be protected. In addition the research effort of the Faculty will be concentrated on Living Matter, i.e., the physics and chemistry of (sub)cellular processes, research that has its largest concentration in the Physics and Chemistry departments. Finally the Biology department and more in particular the EEW will be cut disproportionately, with only four out of its nine groups remaining.

Leiden Theoretical Biology is an order of magnitude smaller than, e.g., Theoretical Physics, and in my prejudiced opinion no less valuable. My group has extensively contributed to the theory of Adaptive Dynamics, Physiologically Structured Populations, and Continuous Time Markov Models for Animal Behaviour, and to a lesser extent to Mathematical Epidemiology, Metapopulation Theory, Evolutionary Game Theory, and Life History Theory. I hope that you are willing to argue our case in a letter to the Minister of Education and Science, the Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, and the Dean of our Faculty of Sciences. A link to addresses and a draft letter (please vary!!) are provided below.

The draft letter is very much geared to saving my group as such. However, we all would appreciate it if you were to weave in a few sentences stressing the need for safeguarding evolutionary biology, or population and organismal biology, against the onslaught wrought by an overly vigorous competition from the molecular sciences. In the long run we need all branches of biology. Moreover, a too depauperated School of Biology will attract few students!

Thankfully yours,
Hans (J.A.J.) Metz
Section Theoretical Evolutionary Biology
Institute of Evolutionary and Ecological Sciences, EEW
Rijksuniversiteit Leiden
Kaiserstraat 63
NL-2311 GP Leiden, The Netherlands
tel: +31-71-5274937
fax: +31-71-5274900
Email: metz@rulsfb.leidenuniv.nl

PS: Please, send us also a "to whom it may concern" copy of your letter, so that we may pass that on to those members of parliament specializing in science and education for their respective parties:

Hans Metz, EEW
P.O.Box 9516
2300RA Leiden
The Netherlands

Additional Information:
In the present plan of the faculty the following groups have to go:

  1. Animal Ecology [Jacques van Alphen, Leo Beukeboom, Jan Sevenster, cs]
  2. Evolutionary Morphology [Gart Zweers, Herman Berkhout, Ron Bout, David Povel pp, John Videler pp, cs]
  3. Theoretical Biology [Diedel Kornet pp, Eke van Batenburg, Rino Zandee, Sacha Gultyaev, cs] & Phylogenetics [Edi Gittenberger pp, cs]
  4. Theoretical Evolutionary Biology [Hans Metz, Patsy Haccou, Evert Meelis, cs]
  5. Environmental Biology [Wim ter Keurs, Hans de Graaf, Cees Musters, Paul Vos, cs]

The groups to be retained are:

  1. Plant Ecology [Eddy van der Meijden, Peter Klinkhamer, Tom de Jong, Klaas Vrieling, Hans van Veen pp, cs]
  2. Evolutionary Biology (Paul Brakefield, Bas Zwaan, Hans Roskam, Rinny Kooi, cs)
  3. Integrative Zoology [Mike Richardson, Guido van den Thillart, Kees Barel, Frans Witte, cs]
  4. Behavioural Biology [Carel ten Cate, Katharina Riebel,cs (Johan Bolhuis has accepted a professorship in Utrecht)]

Please keep this in mind while writing letters. I at least would appreciate if we could keep as much of the EEW, and of Leiden biology, intact as is feasible.

Officially my chair is in Mathematical Biology (not Theoretical Biology), and my group is called Theoretical Evolutionary Biology. Please make a choice. (There is no need to be precise.)

Presently my group consists of one professor, one senior lecturer (Patsy Haccou) one lecturer (Evert Meelis) [all tenured, but due to be fired], one postdoc on EU money (Tom van Dooren), and 5 PhD students (2 from university funds, 3 on grants). This is all that remains after the group was split in 1998 into a mathematically oriented group and an informatics and philosophy oriented group (Eke van Batenburg, Rino Zandee, and Diedel Kornet). Under the current plans both groups will disappear. The history of the group goes back to beginning as an independent Theoretical Biology department in 1957, prior to my becoming a student.

Recently we obtained:

  1. A grant from the EU, as part of larger grant [Modern Life-History Theory and its Application to the Management of Natural Resources], orchestrated from IIASA and Leiden, which got the highest marks in its category.
  2. Three grants from NWO (the major Dutch granting organisation). Last year we were first [Putting life history theory in a realistic ecological context] and fourth [Sexual imprinting, song learning and gene-culture co-evolution: modelling the evolution of brood parasitism in birds] in the ecology competition among roughly 50 applications, 6 of which were granted, and the year before we were second [Developing a bifurcation theory for Evolutionarily Stable Strategies] under comparable circumstances.

A list of all PhDs involving the chair of Mathematical Biology since 1986 (the year Odo Diekmann and I were jointly appointed) can be found under:

A list of publications of the group since 1985 can be found under:

Further information, including the draft letter and this announcement, can be found in a special issue of the SMB Digest at: