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Ecology PhD student wins Dutch award for investigative journalism

PhD student and research journalist Sebastiaan Grosscurt won a Tegel in May. In the data category, Grosscurt and his colleagues won the prestigious Dutch journalism award. 'For me, ecological research and journalism are two ways of achieving the same thing.'

Sebastiaan Grosscurt won the prize for his data research on farmland registration, which he did together with Marieke Rotman and Felix Voogt of Investico, a platform for investigative journalism. For registered farmland, farmers receive subsidies and pay less for the removal of manure. We found out that in a quarter of the cases, farmers do not have proper permission for their land.'

Farmers widely claim other people's land

How do you think of researching something like this? Grosscurt: 'I was doing an internship at the Dutch newspaper Trouw and came across a 2017 article by Emile Hakkenes about a municipality where farmers were claiming roadsides without permission. A pilot came up to solve it. But I thought: it can't be that it only happens in this municipality.' To investigate this, Grosscurt worked together with Felix Voogt and Marieke Rotman of Investico. They also involved journalists from several regional newspapers. 'They know the area and have contact with farmers and municipal councillors. Together, they discovered that farmers receive large-scale subsidies for more land than they have permission for.

Since January 2024, Grosscurt has been doing research at CML in Leiden. He combines research on the stack effect of light and noise pollution on animal behaviour with journalism. Before that, he was a full-time journalist. 'In theory, I am still a journalist one day a week now, but for my ecological research I have to do a lot of fieldwork at the moment, so writing is on the back burner now.'

Pictured from left to right are Pim van der Hulst (research editors of the Brabant newspapers), Felix Voogt (Investico), Marieke Rotman (Investico), Niek Opten (De Gelderlander), Sebastiaan Grosscurt (Investico) and Niek Megens (De Stentor). Not pictured: Leo van Raaij (Tubantia).

Giving nature the place it deserves

Grosscurt sees a lot of similarities between his PhD research and his journalistic work. For the winning research on agricultural land records, he did a lot of data analysis, for which he gained knowledge during his scientific training. As for his scientific interests, he looks for things that don’t quite add up. 'In my research, of course I look at the human impact on nature, but for me there is also a journalistic angle, the social side of what's going wrong and what we should do about it.'

Sebastiaan Grosscurt

He calls himself a nature journalist. 'I think nature is not given the place in society it deserves, and that is my driving force in everything I do. You can partly solve that with more research - and telling about it from the role of researcher - and partly by writing stories as a journalist. For me, that goes in waves. One moment I want to be a good journalist, the next moment I want to throw myself fully into ecology. Those always keep fighting a bit internally with each other for attention.'

Read the publication for which Grosscurt won the award (in Dutch)

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