Does the Nobel Prize also benefit the RUG?

‘This is great for Ben Feringa, and for the RUG as well,’ RUG president Sibrand Poppema cheered when Feringa won the Nobel Prize. But does the most prestigious prize in the world also benefit the university?
By Simone Harmsen and Laurien van Ulzen / Translation by Alain Reniers

Banners, cakes and an endless stream of social media messages. The RUG is proud. It has been nearly two weeks since Ben Feringa won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; the university cannot stop talking about it.

It is beneficial to the university’s reputation and renown. The academic world and national and international media all examined Feringa’s nanomotors and submersibles. They all seem to agree: this is great for the university.


However, it is not the first time a RUG scientist won this prestigious award. In 1953 – it has been a while – Frits Zernike won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Naturally, there have been more Dutch winners since the introduction of the Nobel Prize in 1901.

Nevertheless, Ben Feringa is special; in the past decades, most of the Dutch laureates worked at foreign universities at the time of winning the award. Feringa did not. He did his research at the RUG, was awarded the Nobel Prize for this research and, above all, does not plan on leaving Groningen.

‘The RUG is able to keep Mr. Feringa. This indicates a level of quality for him: a proper research group, students and facilities,’ Roeland Nolte, professor of chemistry at Radboud University in Nijmegen, states. ‘It shows that you do not have to go abroad to win important awards. Groningen is top-notch.’


Nolte was there when his colleague Andre Geim won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. Geim did this research at Radboud University, but when he was awarded the Prize, he had been in Manchester for years. At the time, the award certainly contributed to the image, Nolte says, but the effect would have been even greater if Geim was still working in Nijmegen. ‘That’s why I expect Groningen to experience a much greater impact than Nijmegen.’

So what does this impact entail? The place in the rankings, for one thing. After Geim’s Nobel Prize, Radboud University rose considerable in the university rankings; for example, it moved from place 157 to 135 in the Shanghai Ranking (viewed as the most influential and most reliable). Good to know: In the rankings, the RUG still reaps the benefits from the Nobel Prize awarded to Zernike over 60 years ago.

It is expected that the RUG will now also rise in the rankings. ‘A Nobel Prize results in a lot of credits. Especially if the laureate is still connected to the university at the time of winning the award,’ ‘rankings expert’ Jules Van Rooij, research policy consultant at the RUG, states.


However, Feringa ‘only’ receives one-third of the credit, because he shares the Nobel Prize with two other researchers, Van Rooij says. If Feringa had received the Nobel Prize by himself, then the effect would have been much greater.

Academia values rankings a lot and a high place on such a ranking is good for one’s reputation. The RUG is in 72nd place in the 2016 Shanghai Ranking, which will change according to Van Rooij. ‘Based on my calculations, I estimate that we could rise to 56th place next year.’

It may be even better, he predicts. There are other categories you can earn points with as a university, such as the number of citations and high-quality publications of the researchers. Van Rooij has not yet included this in his calculations. This means it is possible for the RUG to rise in the rankings even more, he thinks.


Dutch universities have faced decreasing numbers of Dutch student registrations for years. Whether a higher ranking will change things for the RUG remains questionable. Theo Jurriens is also not expecting a massive change. For decades, he has been travelling throughout the country with the information bus of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Jurriens tries to enthuse high school students about the wondrous world of sciences and technology.

Jurriens: ‘I have been working with school students for 30 years, but never has a prospective student asked me: ‘Say, Theo, how’s the RUG doing in the rankings?’ Most students don’t even know these rankings exist.’

Jules van Rooij is also not expecting a major effect: ‘Groningen is doing well among Dutch students primarily due to its reputation as a great student city.’ Nevertheless, international students think highly of these rankings. Van Rooij: ‘Students in Asia in particular are guided strongly by these rankings.’

RUG spokesperson Riepko Buikema also feels that the Nobel Prize will primarily have an effect at an international level. ‘We’re already well-known in the Netherlands itself, but are increasing our profile abroad.’


New registrations will primarily be due to master’s programme and PhD students, according the FMNS dean Jasper Knoester: ‘It will primarily concern people that have already advanced in their studies or career and are seriously considering research. It’s perfect for your CV, doing your PhD with a Nobel Prize laureate.’

Knoester feels the effect will especially noticeable within his faculty. Buikema confirms this: ‘Of course, a prospective history student will not choose the RUG simply because a chemist won the Nobel Prize.’

But the effect on professor Feringa’s department should not be overestimated. Smart people have been coming to Groningen from far and wide to work with him. Buikema: ‘When Ben Feringa hadn’t won the Nobel Prize yet, he was already a renowned scientist.’


The positive effects of the Nobel Prize will also affect the RUG’s wallet. According to Jos Winkelman, subsidy consultant at the RUG, it can help researchers with their subsidy requests that more often than not involve big sums.

For such a request, the requesting institute’s reputation is also considered, which is one way in which the Nobel Prize can help other scientists, too, Winkelman says. ‘A Nobel Prize has a big impact. Whenever we drop the name Feringa, it impresses people.’

The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) that distributes the research funding from the government is a bit more hesitant. Spokesperson Olivier Morot states that they primarily look at the quality of the research proposal and the specific researcher. ‘Of course we look at the institute itself and, as such, perhaps consider the Nobel Prize. But whether or not someone has been awarded a Nobel Prize is not a criterion by itself.’

It is difficult to quantify how much the RUG really profits from this. That the Nobel Prize results in a positive reputation is a fact; the same was true for Nijmegen, Martijn Gerritsen of Radboud University says. ‘A Nobel Prize is a world class award and reflects upon your university both internally and externally. Researchers gain more self-confidence and staff members are proud of their organization.’


18 October 2016 | 26-10-2016, 17:01