Today's blog has been written by Professor Richard Gregory, Head of Monitoring at the Centre for Conservation Science, and pays tribute to Lord Robert May
The very sad news came out this week that Lord Robert ‘Bob’ May had died at the age of 84. Bob May’s influence on science has been huge on several levels, including the science itself, the communication of science and the place of science in society.
He single-handedly created the field of theoretical ecology, casting a critical and cold mathematical eye to each subject at hand, and led ground-breaking work in population and community ecology, mathematical biology, epidemiology and even banking systems. That influence extended to conservation biology, where Bob worked to better understand the stability of ecosystems, diversity and extinction rates; and asked fundamental basic questions, such as how many species exist on earth, that turn out to have complex solutions.
Born in Australia, Bob was a theoretical physicist by training but switched to ecology in the 1970s moving first to Princeton and then on to a professorship at Oxford, where he worked for 30 years. In his illustrious career, he held several high-profile posts, including Chief Scientific Advisor to Government, Head of the Office of Science and Technology, and President of the Royal Society. He was knighted in 1996 for services to science, became a life peer in 2001, was appointed the Order of Merit in 2002, and won a string of prestigious awards.
I first came across his work while studying ecology as an undergraduate and here it spiked my interest and curiosity in the complexity of the natural world. I was lucky enough to meet him in person while studying for my doctorate at Oxford and I am proud to say I coauthored papers with him. Here again Bob’s work, in this case in collaboration with Sir Roy Anderson, framed my studies. Bob was a plain speaker and came with a fierce reputation, but he was very supportive and interested in younger scientists and went out of his way to help others. After leaving Oxford, I would occasionally bump into Bob at scientific meetings and he would always come over and take an interest in what you were doing. In this setting, he was warm and friendly; there were no airs and graces with him.
Bob’s no-nonsense language, with a gentle Australian twang, raised eyebrows at the BBC and in Cabinet meetings it seems, but demanded attention. Bob was a great promoter and advocate of science in public and political life and would not shy away from debate. He promoted open transparent dialogue with science and evidence at the heart of decision making. Communication is obviously key to the interaction between science and politics - and Bob May’s leadership changed the nature of that debate. He is reported as saying: “Our values will indicate what questions we should be asking about the natural world and humanity’s impact on it,” and “Our science will ensure that the answers have a solid foundation.”
Bob’s impact on science was considerable as is his legacy.
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