Virologist Marc Van Ranst honoured for science communication


Nineteen researchers and teams from Flanders have been commended for opening up scientific concepts to the public

Mr Virus

KU Leuven virologist Marc Van Ranst (pictured), who has become famous since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Belgium, has been given a lifetime achievement award for communicating scientific concepts to the public.

The honour, conferred by the Royal Flemish Academy and the Jonge Academie, recognises Van Ranst’s many years of public engagement, as well as his work as a media expert during the pandemic.

“Marc Van Ranst always takes the time to explain things simply,” the academies said, announcing the award this week. “He serves society by sharing his knowledge and insight, and also contributes to deepening the public’s trust in science.”

In addition to his contribution to the public’s understanding of the coronavirus, the jury also singled out his efforts to help children understand and appreciate the research in his particular field. “The way Marc Van Ranst, as a scientist, stands at the heart of society, takes up his role and provides interpretation, is an inspiration to many,” it concluded.

Creative and accessible

The academies also named 19 individual researchers and research teams from Flanders who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to creative and accessible science communication in the past two years.

While the label says “science”, the awards cover a broad range of academic disciplines. For example, Evelien Bracke from the literature department at Ghent University is singled out for her schools project Ancient Greeks – Young Heroes, while Sadi Maréchal, from Ghent’s archaeology department, is listed for his contribution to the exhibition Hammam: Steaming Stories.

Then there are Tine Van Osselaer, Kristof Smeyers and Leonardo Rossi from Antwerp University, whose exhibition Wonde(r) examined the fascination for physical suffering apparent in religion in Europe over the past two centuries.

The DataBuzz travels to school to promote digital literacy

The awards also recognise a wide variety of approaches to communication, from lectures and exhibitions, to books and websites. The most unusual is perhaps the Big Bang Route, a 75-km round-trip cycle route between Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, dedicated to the concept of the Big Bang and its founder, Georges Lemaître. This is the brainchild of Mark Huyse of KU Leuven and Jan Govaerts of UCLouvain.

Another mobile project is DataBuzz, devised by Ilse Mariën, Pieter Ballon and Wendy Van den Broeck from imec-SMIT at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). This is an electric bus that brings digital literacy workshops to schools.

Making headlines

While some of the academics are involved with classic themes, such as mathematics, physics and space, others work on subjects much more in the news. Journalism professor Michaël Opgenhaffen is included for his work on misinformation on social media, and for setting up the Factcheck.Vlaanderen website.

Chemical engineer Maarten Mees energises young audiences with his talks about plastics. And psychologist Marlies Maes helps people think about loneliness. All three work at KU Leuven, whose researchers won eight of the 19 awards. Ghent and Antwerp universities are involved in five each, while VUB has three, and Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Mechelen has one.

The biggest team involves seven historians from Antwerp, Ghent, KU Leuven and VUB, who together put together the book Wereldgeschiedenis van Vlaanderen (A World History of Flanders). This reflects on Flanders’ place in the world and how it has been shaped by global events through the ages.

The younger academics on the list will now compete for the Young Promise Science Communication Prize, while everyone is eligible for EOS Public Prize. Both will be announced on 16 November.

Photos, from top: ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA, courtesy imec-SMIT