Bob Scholes: multifaceted scientist with a genius for synthesis


Professor Robert (Bob) Scholes died suddenly on April 28, 2021, while trekking 11 days and 160 km along the Kunene River in northern Namibia. Energetic, enthusiastic and larger than life until the very end, her sudden passing was a huge shock and loss to her colleagues and loved ones. But as one of his colleagues put it, “just like Bob, to go out in style, not crouching on his computer like the rest of us.” The Kalahari and Miombo forests of northern Namibia were special to Bob. They were at the heart of many of his formative scientific experiments. In a way, you could say his career has come full circle.

He was an international member with a primary affiliation to Section 64 (Human Environmental Sciences) and a secondary affiliation to Section 63 (Environmental Sciences and Ecology) of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, Fellow of the South African Academy, Associate Researcher of CSIR, A ranked scientist by the National Research Foundation and winner of the National Science and Technology Forum Lifetime Contribution to Science Prize.

Bob Scholes. Image credit: Benjamin Drummond (photographer).


Bob, Mary and Stirling Scholes. Image credit: Stirling Scholes (photographer).

Bob called himself a “systems ecologist”. He was interested in “global ecology” and used systems thinking to help solve major national and international problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation. Distinguished professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and director of the Global Change Institute, Bob was also a prominent citizen of the global scientific community. He has brought a uniquely African perspective and his particularly powerful intellect to a wide range of high-level international activities over the past 30 years. He also brought a deep understanding based on decades of fieldwork.

Bob grew up on his family farm in Magaliesberg, north of Johannesburg, where he developed his own personal commitment to environmental science. He always said he went to college to become a game ranger because it was the only career in environmental science he knew at the time. Soon, under the guidance of esteemed systems ecologists Brian Walker at the University of the Witwatersrand and Pedro Sanchez at North Carolina State University, Bob discovered a scientific approach to environmental science that suited and matched him. to the extent of his curiosity and vision. He has become a world leader in this approach, centering systems ecology in the search for solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges.

A natural leader who has always set an example by working harder and thinking deeper than everyone around him, Bob has led many high profile field campaigns, including SAFARI 2000. Early in his career, Bob led the Nylsvley Study, a pioneering project to predict changes in the savannah. ecosystem stability in response to stress. Key information from this work, particularly on tree-grass interactions in savannah ecosystems and the role of top-down and bottom-up processes in their coexistence, has now become basic reading for generations of emerging environmentalists who have come together. based on Bob’s ideas for tackling global issues. change the stakes on the dynamics and the future of tropical savannas.

Bob’s leadership has extended to many regional and global activities. In Africa, he has led assessments on topics ranging from elephant management to shale gas development, and has served on the boards of South African National Parks and the South African Space Agency. Globally, Bob has been active on steering committees for global observations of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity. He has played a particularly important role in the global assessment activities of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Services. ecosystem (IPBES). Within the IPCC, he authored the 2001, 2007 and 2014 assessments. Likewise, his talents have captured the imagination and approval of the social, environmental and integrated sciences at the National Academy of Sciences.

Consolidating his status as a leading figure at the interface between ecology and climate change, Bob’s last major international achievement was the co-chair of the scientific steering committee of the December 2020 IPCC-IPBES workshop on climate change and the biodiversity.

Bob was best known for his clarity of mind. He had a gift and a passion for helping scientists reach consensus and helping decision-makers understand the consequences of their decisions. With Bob in the room, a messy confusion of voices could be simplified and focused. Journalists loved him for his ability to steer their questions towards the most useful and honest messages.

He was also comfortable discussing the intricacies of the Multiangle Imaging SpectroRadiometer, identifying trees in the bush, developing analytical models of ecosystem dynamics, creating delicious food in the kitchen, and playing with wires and recorders. data. The first thing he taught his students was to have a well-stocked toolbox. Together with his wife Mary and son Stirling, they designed and built their own carbon neutral, off-grid home, calculating and monitoring power supply and water heating systems with a research grade data logger. the entry hall.

Bob was unwavering in his belief that African scientists had new and important ideas to share with this global community. He has been involved in the development of undergraduate programs and has made student education a priority. Famous, Bob would launch into detailed explanations of any concept at the slightest encouragement. He has always managed to treat everyone equally from the delightful prospect of scientific discovery.

In the units he led, Bob developed a reputation for bringing together a range of misfits and unique characters under his broad umbrella, enabling their growth and guiding their talents. He strove to create interdisciplinary teams where climatologists and artists were also welcomed and valued. He certainly understood the value of a verbal spade and used them strategically, but underlying that was kindness and a lack of judgment. He expected thoroughness and honesty, but was open to a range of views on exactly how to do good science or what a good life should be.

Like a lot of really bright people, Bob had more ideas than he could ever bring to fruition: he threw the first high CO2 experiments in South Africa and installed a turbulent long-term covariance system which is one of the oldest on the African continent. These ambitious plans were often thwarted by the minimal financial and human resources available in South Africa, but this never dampened Bob’s enthusiasm. His solution: bring in international partners and train Africans at every opportunity. The result is a rich and growing network of systemic thinkers and environmentalists leading projects that become even more ambitious, flourish and develop their own lives.

Although he has spent his life grappling with some of the most difficult issues facing humanity, Bob has retained a sense of optimism, a zest for life, and a deep confidence in the potential that comes from hard work on a shared vision.

  • Has received July 27, 2021.
  • Accepted July 23, 2021.

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