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Just Fifteen Years Ago

Reflections on a leading scientist’s warning about modern plagues

Just fifteen years ago it was,
Just fifteen years ago
When Robert May was speaking to his peers
for the last time as their President.
Just fifteen years ago.
It was a time for forward thinking, as he knew. **

Could he offer his prognosis as a warning? … or a hope?
Or a confident expression about science that will cope?
Through careful fact-based reasoning and disciplined research
our modern times were now, he said, (He borrowed Dickens’ words)
the “best of times” but also the “worst of times” as well
He emphasised that both of these were true.

The questing way of science gives us new knowledge
from which our way of life has gained so much,
but unexpected side effects of progress
have also given threats, new threats, that we
must now address. He spoke in detail about three:

    • There’s Climate change we daren’t ignore, and
    • Loss of species by the score - which matters more,
    • And modern plagues like SARS and AIDS which thrive …

… within our crowded, mobile, populace.

His knowledge of past plagues in human crowds –
Black death, Pandemic flu and many more –
warned him of plagues to come.

Now fifteen years have passed. A plague has come
and other threats remain - not to ourselves alone,
but to some parts of Planet Earth we thought we knew,
and could for granted take.  Its forests, oceans, ecosystems and its air
all now need care. They need our action on a scale much greater
than our skills with vaccines, medicines and such.  

Our research skills are proven, our inventiveness is great.  
Can we address the global threats,
Or will we be too late?


** Sir Robert May was Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government from 1995 to 2000 and then President of the Royal Society for five years. Approaching his own retirement, he addressed the Society for the last time as its President, taking as his theme ‘Threats to Tomorrow’s World. Of course he could celebrate the achievements of science and emphasise great importance of scientific methods in helping us tackle on-going and future dangers. Success has been great – hence we have in some ways “the best of times”, in Charles Dickens’ words. Yet there have been unexpected consequences of our success creating dangers, and he spoke in detail about three of these: climate change, loss of biodiversity, and modern plagues that are likely in our crowded human population. 

His full text is available at

Fifteen years later, we live in a strange Lockdown time, and to understand our experience in context, I recommend that we re-read what he had to say at that time. He died in this year, 2020, but his words live on.

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