Articles | Volume 3, issue 3
SOIL, 3, 153–159, 2017
SOIL, 3, 153–159, 2017

Forum article 13 Sep 2017

Forum article | 13 Sep 2017

How Alexander von Humboldt's life story can inspire innovative soil research in developing countries

Johan Bouma1,*,** Johan Bouma
  • 1Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • *retired
  • ** Invited contribution by Johan Bouma, recipient of the EGU Alexander von Humboldt Medal 2017.

Abstract. The pioneering vision of Alexander von Humboldt of science and society of the early 1800s is still highly relevant today. His open mind and urge to make many measurements characterizing the interconnected web of life are crucial ingredients as we now face the worldwide challenge of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Case studies in the Philippines, Vietnam, Kenya, Niger, and Costa Rica demonstrate, in Alexander's spirit, interaction with stakeholders and attention to unique local conditions, applying modern measurement and modeling methods and allowing inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches. But relations between science and society are increasingly problematic, partly as a result of the information revolution and post-truth, fact-free thinking. Overly regulated and financially restricted scientific communities in so-called developed countries may stifle intellectual creativity. Researchers in developing countries are urged to leapfrog these problems in the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt as they further develop their scientific communities. Six suggestions to the science community are made with particular attention to soil science. (The Humboldt lecture, presented by the 2017 recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt lecture, Johan Bouma, can be accessed at

Short summary
Alexander von Humboldt was an inspiring scientist in the early 1800s, traveling widely, making many measurements, and linking different scientific disciplines while keeping an eye open to the needs of society. This is particularly relevant today in our information society, and researchers in developing countries are advised to follow the von Humboldt example when planning their future research.