Compassionate Academia

Friday 7th March 2014

Scientific university departments have the potential to be somewhat unfriendly and impenetrable places. Huge intellects striving for national or international recognition and working their socks off to get papers published and to secure the next research grant. In this environment the undergraduate can find it hard to get attention, particularly the level of assistance he or she may require when things go wrong. It can be difficult for the hard-pressed lecturer to devote time to encouraging and developing talent, especially when the emergent talents do not align with the lecturer’s research interests or the student is getting into complex personal difficulties.

Dr Robert James – Bob James to everyone – long-serving ecologist in the School of Biological Sciences at UEA, who died this week, was a lecturer and tutor who never found it hard to give time to students – to encourage, assist or even make pleadings on their behalf to the Department. 

Bob had a fine ecological mind, sound statistical acumen, great knowledge, ideas, passion and dedication. He was a good all round naturalist with a particular scientific interest in the population ecology of invertebrates. Amongst other subjects Bob studied East Anglian coastal shrimps and mountain invertebrates on Cader Idris in his beloved homeland of Wales. But scientific papers were infrequent, most, such as the study on the effects of flooding on bugs that I referred to in this blog just two weeks ago, were published by his students, with him as co-author.

Despite Bob’s academic talents, to the constant gently rumbling frustration of the Department, he sought no personal publication glory, instead facilitating the work of many others and enabling them to achieve.

Bob was also a man who enjoyed seeing people being happy; he was always central to organising field trips and making sure they were sociable as well as academic occasions. He once told me that while an undergraduate at Cardiff University he had commandeered the Student Union minibus to take a crowd of friends on a pub crawl. On their return he was met by a furious Neil Kinnock, then President of the Cardiff Student Union and later leader of the Labour Party, who gave him the biggest dressing down of his life.

Bob gave me my first wildlife job – identifying spiders. I am sure he did this because he saw an interest and talent and wanted to foster it – and look where I am now – CEO of a successful invertebrate conservation charity. Other professional ecologists owe as big or a bigger debt to Bob’s care and compassion.  The gratitude and love they feel has been evident over the last few days.

Bob was the quietly throbbing heart of the Department, he was involved with a number of important studies and papers, but the far greater and more significant legacy that he will leave is the many people who are more skilled, compassionate and wiser as a result of knowing Bob.

Every University scientific department aspiring to greatness should have, and should value, someone like Dr Robert James.