Imperial community pays tribute to Lord Robert May (1936-2020)

Lord Robert May (left) pictured at Imperial in 2007, with then-Rector Sir Roy An

Lord Robert May (left) pictured at Imperial in 2007, with then-Rector Sir Roy Anderson (right)

Colleagues remember a ’towering figure in UK science’, with a ’sharp, penetrating mind’ and a passion for croquet.

Members of Imperial College London were saddened to hear of the death, on 28 April 2020, of Robert (Bob) McCredie May, Baron May of Oxford, former Professor in Biology and a Fellow of Imperial College (1997).

Each morning we would present Bob with a problem we were trying to solve; he would come up with a mathematical approach and by the afternoon we had a draft of a paper for publication Professor Gordon Conway


During the late-1960s and early 1970s, Lord May visited Imperial from the University of Sydney, where he was Professor of Theoretical Physics, and became part of a close-knit group of ten academics that formed at the Silwood Park Campus and drove a new mathematical approach to the field of ecology.

“Each morning we would present Bob with a problem we were trying to solve; he would come up with a mathematical approach and by the afternoon we had a draft of a paper for publication,” remembered Professor Gordon Conway, a member of the ’Silwood Circle’ group with Richard (Dick) Southwood, Michael Hassell, Roy Anderson, Michael (Mick) Crawley, John Lawton, and John Beddington.

“The next challenge was the order of authorship, which we resolved by croquet matches that Bob usually won,” Professor Conway added.

A natural polymath

From 1988 until 1995, Lord May held a Royal Society Research Professorship jointly at Imperial and the University of Oxford, after which he became Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government (1995-2000), retaining a position at Imperial and being made Fellow of Imperial College in 1997.

A natural polymath, he advised ministers on the handling of a wide variety of scientific and very public concerns, including conservation and biodiversity, resource management, pest control, food policy, genetically modified (GM) crops and foods, sustainable agriculture, international development, defence against biological weapons, and epidemiology and infectious disease control.

“He enjoyed making the establishment uncomfortable, in particular with his sometimes-colourful language learnt in his youth,” recalled Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, now Chair of the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial.

A sharp, penetrating mind

In 2000, Lord May was nominated to one of the most prestigious posts in science, the presidency of the Royal Society , the UK’s national academy for science, where he stayed until 2005.

Lord May was appointed as a founding member of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change in 2008, along with fellow Imperial professors Sir Brian Hoskins, Jim Skea and Michael Grubb, to provide expert advice to the government on how the UK could best meet its climate change goals.

“He was very aware of the climate change problem and for the first years of the Climate Change Committee I experienced at first hand his sharp, penetrating mind,” Professor Hoskins said.

New Scientist quoted Lord May saying: “Application of the physical and biological sciences has made today arguably the best of times: we live longer and healthier lives, food production has doubled in the past 35 years and energy subsidies have substituted for human labour, washing away hierarchies of servitude. But the unintended consequences of these well-intentioned actions — climate change, biodiversity loss, inadequate water supplies, and much else — could well make tomorrow the worst of times.”

Tributes

Those who knew Lord May at Imperial are invited to submit their tributes and memories to be published in the comments section below.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway FRS FREng, Professor of International Development at Imperial College London and formerly President of the Rockefeller Foundation and President of the Royal Geographical Society, said:

“I first met Bob May when he visited us at Silwood Park, Imperial College in 1971. He was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Sydney University and he came to us because he was attracted by the ecological problems we were trying to solve for which he had answers. We created a small team, subsequently called the Silwood Circle, led by Dick Southwood, Head of the Department.

“The team was extraordinarily productive - each morning we would present Bob with a problem we were trying to solve; he would come up with a mathematical approach and by the afternoon we had a draft of a paper for publication. The next challenge was the order of authorship, which we resolved by croquet matches that Bob usually won. In addition to Bob, Dick and myself were Mick Crawley, Mike Hassell, Roy Anderson, John Lawton, John Krebs, David Rodgers and John Beddington - all eventually pursuing distinguished careers in academia and as chief scientists and helping to form a next generation of mathematical ecologists active today.”

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins FRS CBE, Chair of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Bob May was an Australian who became famous for his research on the mathematical modelling of ecosystems, developing chaos theory in that context. He was a towering figure in UK science for many years, including being Government Chief Scientist and President of the Royal Society. He was very aware of the climate change problem and for the first years of the Climate Change Committee I experienced at first hand his sharp, penetrating mind. He enjoyed making the establishment uncomfortable, in particular with his sometimes-colourful language learnt in his youth!”

Prof Sir Charles Godfray FRS, Past President of the British Ecological Society and Oxford Martin School at University of Oxford and Honorary Principal Research Fellow in Life Sciences at Imperial, said:

“Bob May’s contributions to ecology were immense; he provided a rigorous framework that underpins the way we all today think about population and community dynamics. He was a pioneer of chaos theory and made very substantial contributions to epidemiology and other fields. For decades he was a major figure in British scientific life, for example during his period as Government Chief Scientific Advisor clarifying the rules of engagement between scientists and policy makers. And he had an abiding love of wild places, and I think was nowhere happier than on long walks with his family and friends in beautiful landscapes.”

Professor Anne Dell, Head of the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said:

“I got to know Bob quite well after my election to the Royal Society. He was President at the time and kindly nominated me for Council so I had the privilege of sitting in the Council room of the RS at regular intervals for a couple of years while he chaired vigorous discussions. He also delivered erudite anniversary lectures with his trademark Australian bluntness.”

Professor Guy Woodward, Professor of Ecology and Deputy Head of the Department of Life Sciences at Silwood Park, Imperial College London, said:

“I was extremely saddened to hear of Bob May’s passing - although I only met him in person once, when he was visiting Imperial a few years ago, I cut my teeth on his papers at the very start of my research career, and they remain essential reading for my own students to this day. He was without doubt one of the most influential scientists of the past century, and he almost singlehandedly revolutionised the entire field I work in - ecology - by forging it into a truly quantitative discipline and challenging the received orthodoxies of the day. He grappled with many of the biggest questions about life on Earth and developed new mathematical approaches for understanding complex natural systems - his seminal work in this field from the 1970s onwards has influenced countless ecologists around the world ever since. Closer to home, his intellectual legacy continues to ripple through the Silwood Park campus, which he moulded into a world-leading centre for theoretical ecology, and the quantitative thinking he instilled there still underpin much of our research and teaching to this day. He will be sorely missed as a true titan of not just ecology, but of science itself.”

Professor Vincent Savolainen, Director of the Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment Initiative at Silwood Park, Imperial College London, said:

“I met Bob during my time at Kew and more recently at Silwood Park. He was always giving inspirational talks, not always ‘politically correct’ as some may say but shaking preconceived ideas with the strength of an outstanding scientific mind.”

Professor Timothy Barraclough, Department of Zoology at University of Oxford and former Deputy Head of the Department of Life Sciences at Silwood Park, Imperial College London, said:

“Bob was not a regular visitor in my time at Silwood Park, he had already shifted his main place of work to Oxford. But he was the fire that lit up the whole of that generation of people here in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and continued to play that role in absentio. He was talked about a lot, and when he came there was a buzz of deference, respect and no small amount of fear. He catalysed the position of Silwood Park as the world centre of quantitative ecology and the effects of that are still in play today. My personal recollection is of a peerless public speaker and communicator - total control, perfect emphasis, entertaining, blunt, the obligatory single use of the F-bomb, aggressive, competitive. The leading hero from the mythological age when mathematical ecology took over the world.”

Professor Georgina Mace DBE FRS, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, at UCL and former colleague of Lord May at Imperial, said:

“I first met Bob in the mid-1980s when he became interested in conservation biology and applied his ruthless logic to the rather vague way that we were approaching practical problems in biodiversity conservation. It was both inspiring and terrifying to face his penetrating analyses and not always gentle critiques. But I have never forgotten the lessons I learned from him then. Neither will I forget his generosity and encouragement to me personally. His general support to women in science has benefitted many of us, and I can point to several instances where his intervention made a huge difference at critical points in my career. He was truly a great scientist, but he also cared about how science was done, used and communicated.”

Dr Emma Cavan, Research Associate in Ecosystem Modelling, Department of Life Sciences at Silwood Park, Imperial College London, said:

“For any ecologist it is impossible to truly understand ecology without studying the work of Bob May. He has left such a huge legacy that will be taught for years, if not decades, to come. If I am even a tenth as influential as Bob has been by the end of my career, I should consider that a great success.”

Professor Richard Green, Professor of Sustainable Energy Business at Imperial College Business School, said:

"I heard his BBC Radio 4 Life Scientific interview and have frequently played students a clip in which he talked about the need for models to be "sophisticatedly simple", based on his experience modelling HIV. The World Health Organisation had a complex model of population demographics coupled to a model of how measles would spread among a population, and apparently disparaged his model because the demographics were very simple, missing the point that his team’s model had a much better representation of how HIV was spread, which was the thing that mattered in this context. ’Sadly, we were right,’ he mused, in producing a more pessimistic forecast than the WHO, because the complexity was where it needed to be."


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