NWO Spinoza Prize for economic historian Bas van Bavel

Highest scientific distinction in the Netherlands

Economic historian professor Bas van Bavel has received the NWO Spinoza Prize of 2.5 million euros. The Spinoza Prize is the highest scientific distinction in the Netherlands. The Faculty Professor Transitions of Economy and Society is one of the world’s greatest experts in the area of socioeconomic history. He developed an entirely new vision about the role of the market economy in our society.

According to the Spinoza Prize selection committee, Van Bavel has a broad interest and a powerful research agenda, for which he keeps on finding surprising and original perspectives. He enjoys a considerable international reputation, writes in renowned international journals and has won a considerable number of prizes.

Resilient societies

Van Bavel developed an entirely new vision about the role of the market economy in our society. In the much-discussed book “The Invisible Hand? How market economies have emerged and declined since AD 500”, Van Bavel refutes the idea that our market economy is an indispensable condition for prosperity and the rule of law. His research is driven by the question as to how societies develop in the long term and how differences in their development can be explained. What makes some societies more successful and resilient than others?

Starting from a sharp focus on fundamental problems – the long-term effects of society on market economies, the management of catastrophes – Bas van Bavel tests existing theories and clearly formulates his innovative insights.

Utilising history

Historical insights are needed to answer these questions. Van Bavel: ‘We currently face important questions such as the preservation of our living environment, the growth of prosperity and how to distribute this fairly, the development of open societies, and finding new forms of collaboration between people and groups of people.

‘All of these concern processes that occur very gradually. We therefore need to use history to obtain fundamental insights into the course of these processes and to expose the forces that drive these. History also allows me to test theories from economics and other social sciences against what has actually happened. In other words, it enables me to move from theory to empirical testing.’p>

I want to use the funds of the material resources from the Spinoza Prize to investigate how some societies in certain periods succeeded in maximising prosperity– in the broadest sense of the word – for as many individuals as possible. I am looking for the institutional conditions needed for a “good society”, and I assume that such a society can be realised in many different ways.

Interdisciplinary collaboration provides a fuller picture

Van Bavel looks beyond the boundaries of his own discipline and collaborates with economists, sociologists, political scientists and ethicists: ‘Combining expertise from different disciplines, is incredibly important because it allows me to analyse an issue from different perspectives, which gives rise to a far fuller picture.

Bas van Bavel about his research.

‘I have, for example, learned from economists who formalise a problem and therefore force you to focus and make assumed causal relationships explicit. Philosophers have taught me not to leave normative assumptions implicit, but instead to define these and thus make them visible and testable. By working together with social scientists, I have gained a far better understanding of the interaction between processes at the level of society as a whole with processes within and between organisations and groups, therefore at the meso-level, and with the actions of individuals.’

Institutions for Open Societies

Van Bavel is the academic director of Institutions for Open Societies, an interdisciplinary research area of Utrecht University focused on the development and expansion of the foundations for open societies. As Dean Prof Dr Keimpe Algra points out, “Bas van Bavel combines his pioneering scientific work with visionary and inspiring leadership of the strategic theme Institutions, as primus inter pares in a strong team, and with a clear public presence”

What really sets Bas van Bavel apart is his natural talent for bringing together researchers from very different disciplines to jointly work on the grand societal challenges of our time. As a real team player, he is a jewel in our university crown. We are, of course, extremely proud of him.

Scientific career

After his PhD graduation in 1993, Van Bavel began as a KNAW research fellow at the University of Amsterdam and a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University. He first investigated the emergence and organisation of markets in late medieval Holland. After that, he expanded his research area to economic growth and stagnation in the preindustrial era in Iraq, Italy and the Low Countries.

Van Bavel was awarded the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant in 2013, and since then he has investigated the resilience of West European societies in the face of shocks. In that same year, he was elected a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also particularly successful as the standard-bearer of “Towards resilient societies”, one of the Dutch National Research Agenda routes.

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