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Meet the scientist: Lord Robert May


EMBO Members for 2014 - Anniversary election


Professor May, how did you become interested in ecology?

After returning to Australia from my postdoctoral research at Harvard in 1961, I spent twelve years in the physics department at Sydney University. At that time, ecology was moving beyond being purely descriptive to acquire a more theoretical foundation for the phenomena in the natural world. Ecology is a young subject. The word is only about a hundred years old. The head of the biology department at Sydney – a distinguished ecologist – established an organisation called Social Responsibility in Science and I thought I should learn more about what I was being socially responsible about. I developed interest in animal population dynamics and the relationship between complexity and stability in natural communities.


You have degrees in chemical engineering and physics, you are an ecologist, zoologist and mathematician. What is your common theme?

I like looking at complicated things and asking what are the essentials of what is happening. I see the mathematical approach as a way of thinking very clearly and expressing your ideas very unambiguously. Mathematics is the central theme in the way I have moved from place to place in pursuit of interesting problems.


You took maths to the banking and finance system. It is a long way from chemical engineering.

That was completely accidental. I was part of the study group put together by the US National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Reserve Bank in 2006, before the banking crisis happened. At that time we had published a paper on modelling the banking system. It opened a new way of making short-term predictions on things that looked random, but were governed by rules. This is how I started working for the Bank of England. It was not done deliberately, but I was drawn into it and took it seriously.


Is it important to be flexible?

I never planned a trajectory for my life. Most of the things that have happened in my life were accidents rather than careful planning. But I have been rather flexible in taking advantage of these accidents.

There is an interesting book Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod. He emphasises that a nature of a scientific discovery is a mixture of accident and the alertness to take advantage of the accidents. This is something I have been pretty good at.


From your time as Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government and as President of the Royal Society, what do you think you are particularly well remembered for?

When I took on the job as Chief Scientist in 1995, the public excitement about mad cow disease was at its peak. Shortly after, I produced a formal protocol for science advice in government. This protocol emphasized that science not always tells the government what to do, but reports what the knowledge is. Its aim is to frame a debate – the rest would be a democratic decision.


During my time at the Royal Society, it was not so much my personal influence, but the Society as a whole that recognised that it should widen its membership. The provision was to elect people who had been successful in the application of science in business and industry rather than those who advanced the frontiers of knowledge. Also, we did a better job at electing more women as members. I made a start on much of this and other people have carried it forward very well.