The staff and trustees of the British Science Association were sad to learn of the passing of former President, Lord Robert McCredie May on 28 April 2020, aged 84. Lord May was a theoretical ecologist, promoter of science and political influencer. Pioneering a mathematical approach to ecology, he established the field of theoretical ecology and developed influential and highly cited theories in population biology.

Lord May was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association in 2005, and was later appointed President of the organisation in 2009. He gave his presidential address at the British Science Festival in Surrey that year, where speaking in the auspicious surroundings of Guildford Cathedral he talked about the evolution of co-operation, or 'Darwin's unsolved problem' as he saw it, and suggested that religious leaders should be more vocal on science issues, including climate change.

Former Chief Executive of the British Science Association, Sir Roland Jackson said:

“Lord May, or Bob to all that knew him, was an important figure in science, particularly ecology, but also science policy and communication. He was great fun to be around and was not afraid to be forthright in his approach or open with his views.

“I fondly remember his passionate speech as President of the British Science Association where he argued that religious leaders could play a major role in combating climate change -– he knew that we all had a role to play in tackling climate change, even a decade ago.”

Born in Sydney, Australia, Lord May was educated at Sydney Boys High School, and later attended the University of Sydney, where he studied chemical engineering and theoretical physics, receiving a PhD in theoretical physics, focused on superconductivity. 

After completing his thesis in 1959, Lord May began a successful research career as a theoretical physicist but turned his interest to ecology in the 1970s. Over the next three decades, he used his theoretical physics background to make major advances in the field of population biology, further extended to the study of infectious diseases and of biodiversity.

In 1988, Lord May took up a post as Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University. He served as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and head of its Office of Science and Technology between 1995 and 2000, and was President of the Royal Society between 2000 and 2005.

In 1996 he was knighted for services to science. He became one of the first life peers in the House of Lords in 2001 and was appointed by Her Majesty The Queen to the Order of Merit in 2002.

He received numerous accolades including Companion of the Order of Australia in 1998, and the Order of Merit in 2002. His Fellowships include the Royal Society in 1979, Corresponding Member of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, Foreign Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1992, Academia Europaea in 1994, and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 2010.

Some of his honours include the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize (1996), the Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize (1998), the Japanese Blue Planet Prize (2001) and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal (2007), its oldest and most prestigious award.

His expertise will be greatly missed, but his legacy and outstanding contribution towards science and the science engagement sector will be long remembered.