Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences awarded to William Laurance

15 March 2012

A passion for nature conservation and scientific research

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the 2012 Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences (USD 150,000) to William Laurance, professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. He is receiving the prize for his research on the effects of habitat fragmentation, logging, hunting, fires and other human activity on the vulnerable Amazon region, and for the way he has encouraged public debate on the protection of tropical ecosystems.


William Laurance’s work is driven by his desire to protect tropical ecosystems and to conduct painstaking, complex research into the factors that threaten such systems. This combination has made Laurance one of the world’s leading experts when it comes to man’s impact on vulnerable rainforests and tropical biodiversity.
What distinguishes Laurence’s scientific work is its breadth. He studies habitat fragmentation, climate change, soil biology and surface fires, but he has also turned his attention to contagious diseases, government environmental protection policy, the effects of road building, corruption, logging and hunting, nature reserve design, and publication bias in the sciences. His research has taken him to Australia, the Amazon, the Congo, Central America and Southeast Asia.
This broad vision has led Laurance to develop many new concepts and hypotheses. For example, he drew attention to the fact that many ecological threats are mutually reinforcing when they occur simultaneously.
Laurance is also highly prolific. He has published more than three hundred articles since receiving his doctorate in 1989, averaging more than one a month. Dozens of these have appeared in such prestigious journals as Science and Nature, and many more in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the most influential of all ecology journals. He has also been closely involved in writing a number of classic nature conservation and environmental science textbooks.
In addition to painstaking, Laurance’s research is of enormous social relevance. “If we biologists don’t strive to slow rampant forest destruction, who will?” he once wondered. In his lectures and op-ed articles, Laurance frequently draws on his scientific expertise and background to persuade the general public and governments of the need for nature conservation and environmental protection.
It is this combination of research and engagement that makes his work unique and influential.


William Laurance was born in the United States. He studied at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, and the University of California in Berkeley. His passion for tropical animals and ecosystems was awakened when he spent several summers working at zoos, and in 1989 he was awarded his doctorate at Berkeley for studying the ecological impact of habitat fragmentation on tropical forests and their mammalian wildlife.
He then went to Australia, first to the CSIRO Tropical Forest Research Centre and then to the SFS Centre for Rainforest Studies in Queensland.
In 1996, Laurance joined the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute and was based in Brazil and Panama. Thirteen years later, he returned to Australia to accept an appointment at James Cook University in Townsville, where he still teaches.
Laurance has received various awards, including an Australian Laureate Fellowship. He is a research associate at Harvard University in Cambridge, USA and holds the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands. He is also closely involved in the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative, a partnership project set up by Yale University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which focuses on training environmental policymakers in South America and Southeast Asia. 
He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world’s largest scientific organisation devoted to the study and preservation of tropical ecosystems.

Key publications

  • W. F. Laurance, et al. (1997) Biomass collapse in Amazonian forest fragments. Science 278:117-118.
  • W. F. Laurance, et al. (2001) The future of the Brazilian Amazon. Science 291:438-439.
  • W. F. Laurance, et al. (2004) Pervasive alteration of tree communities in undisturbed Amazonian forests. Nature 428:171-175.
  • W. F. Laurance & C. Peres, editors (2006) Emerging Threats to Tropical Forests. University of Chicago Press, USA.
  • W. F. Laurance, et al. (2009) Impacts of roads and linear clearings on tropical forests. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24:659-669.


The Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences was established in 1990 and is awarded every two years. Previous laureates include James Lovelock, Paul Ehrlich, Lonnie Thompson, Stuart Pimm and Bert Brunekreef. The jury was chaired by Albert van den Berg.


The Heineken Prizes will be presented on Thursday 27 September 2012 during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.