Brilliant scientist with a penchant for candour

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The Independent Online
HE MAY carry the lofty title of Chief Scientific Adviser to Her Majesty's Government, but Sir Robert May FRS is far from most people's image of a genteel, dispassionate civil servant.

A no-nonsense Australian, Sir Bob, as he prefers to be called, is unafraid of telling both ministers and the media exactly what he thinks.

His letter to the RSPB, in which he suggested that some GM crops may not be released commercially before 2003, is just the latest example of his candour on a range of issues.Earlier this year he declared that there was "not much of a case" for continuing the beef-on-the bone ban, although the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, was committed to keeping it. He also told the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee that he had little doubt that terrorists in Iran and Iraq were plotting to release genetically engineered viruses on to the West.

On GM crops, the 63-year-old academic has repeatedly stressed that the Government should be aware of their potential dangers to the environment.

As an keen naturalist and an expert in biodiversity, Sir Robert has said that he shares the concerns of English Nature and green groups about the impact of the technology on birds and wild animals as well as plants.

Even so, he has robust views on the issue and memorably told Radio 4's Today programme: "If you mix cyanide with vermouth in a cocktail and find that it is not good for you, I don't draw sweeping conclusions that you should ban all mixed drinks."

Such frankness has characterised a brilliant academic career that spans a PhD in theoretical physics at Sydney University, a professorship in biology at Princeton University and a current fellowship at Merton College, Oxford.

A rigorous mathematician, he has predicted population changes among animals, insects and viruses and, notwithstanding criticism at the time, accurately forecast the effects of HIV in Africa.

Appointed Chief Scientific Adviser in 1995, he has also had the honour of attempting to explain Fermat's Last Theorem to the Queen. "Don't worry, there won't be a quiz," he told the baffled monarch.

He admits his knighthood is an "extremely useful thing to whack in front of your name", but is fiercely proud of his achievements, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists in 1996.

Known for his inability to suffer fools gladly, he is keen to educate ministers as much as the public about science. "I see no harm in people having a sense of who I am ... Actually, it would be quite helpful if some members of Government found out who I was," he said earlier this year.