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Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology

UW-Madison professor Stephen Carpenter received the Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology in Barcelona on Dec. 17. Along with an award of 80,000 euros, Carpenter received a sculpture depicting a microalgae named for Margalef, a Catalan researcher who was a founder of the science of ecology.

A UW-Madison scientist whose studies of Wisconsin’s freshwater lakes are known around the world has been awarded a prestigious prize recognizing his lifetime of research.

Stephen Carpenter received the Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology earlier this month.

The prize, which carries an award of 80,000 euros (about $90,000), recognizes Carpenter’s “creative and original work, which has transformed our understanding of ecosystems,” according to the award jurors.

The jurors lauded Carpenter for developing solutions to complex environmental problems that have had impact “locally, nationally and globally.”

Carpenter has studied the ways isolated alterations of a lake’s biology or chemistry can cascade through a freshwater ecosystem and result in unexpected change throughout the body of water.

He has been an outspoken critic of government policies that have failed to prevent nutrient pollution such as manure and fertilizer from running off the land and creating unnaturally thick tangles of underwater plants and hazardous scums of bacterial algae.

The prize is sponsored by the government of the autonomous province of Catalonia in Spain. Catalonia was the home of the award’s namesake. Margalef, who died in 2004, was a founder of the modern science of ecology.

Carpenter traveled to Barcelona to accept the award. The cash prize is given to Carpenter personally, unlike a fellowship or research grant that must be plowed back into academic work.

Catalan law doesn’t allow Carpenter to give the money to UW-Madison.

“I already tried to do that,” he said.

About 40 percent of the money will go to taxes. Of the remainder, Carpenter said he and his wife, Susan, decided to give half to the UW Foundation to support programs close their hearts. Most of the rest will be spent on conservation efforts in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, including Snowbottom Natural Area.

It’s not the biggest cash prize Carpenter has been awarded during his career. In 2011, he traveled to Sweden to receive the Stockholm Water Prize, which carried $150,000. Prize officials described Carpenter as “one of the world’s most influential environmental scientists in the field of ecology.”

‘Free-range scientist’

Carpenter, 66, retired in 2017 as director of the university’s Center for Limnology. But he didn’t stop working. He gave himself the title, “free-range scientist” and continued collaborating part-time with other researchers analyzing lake data and working on new methods to do such analysis.

“I am continuing my projects in global sustainability with international colleagues; these are always unpaid but very stimulating intellectually and maybe help save the planet,” Carpenter said. “I enjoy having the freedom to control my own calendar, work on science that really excites me, and be active outdoors in nature as much as possible.”

While in Barcelona, Carpenter met with Catalan president Quim Torra, who was elected after the province declared independence from Spain in October 2017 and top provincial leaders were arrested.

Carpenter said Torra held the view of other Catalans he met: The province should be freed from or granted a new governance arrangement with Spain.

Torra demonstrated a strong grasp of science related to climate change, agriculture and water quality, Carpenter said.

“He wanted to talk with me about the COP 24 summit (on international efforts to slow global warming) in Poland which he attended, and whether humanity could survive climate change,” Carpenter said. “He is smart, educated, informed, in these respects a bit like (prime minister) Justin Trudeau of Canada.”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.