William Bond, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Biological Sciences, has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy. Bond is the seventh South African to be accorded the honour and will join the ranks of other icons of science, including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, when he is inducted as a Fellow later this year.
“You know it looked like such an innocent little email when I first saw it,” says Bond, of his reaction to hearing the good news. “When I opened it, I was paralysed with shock for quite a while. It is only now that it is starting to sink in.”
Speaking at the announcement of the 2021 cohort of 52 fellows chosen from over 700 applicants, Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said that the global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of scientific thinking and collaboration across borders.
“Science requires the imagination to make connections that leads to new discoveries and this creativity comes from all sorts of sources, including art, music, myth and poetry.”
“Each Fellow and Foreign Member brings their area of scientific expertise to the Royal Society and when combined, this expertise supports the use of science for the benefit of humanity.”
Bond is recognised as a global authority on open (non-forested) ecosystems (e.g. grasslands, savannas, shrublands) and his research into the forces that shape global vegetation, including wildfire, CO2 levels and herbivores, is credited with transforming our understanding of how these systems emerged. In 2013 he was admitted as a foreign associate of the United States' National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and in 2020 was once again included in the Highly Cited Researcher (HCR) list, which recognises the contribution of scientists who demonstrate significant and broad influence through the publication of multiple papers frequently cited by their peers over the course of a decade.
When he first started out in the field of ecology however, he had little idea that his research would one day become global.
From a blade of grass to a global perspective
“I was inspired to become an ecologist by my older sister who read widely as a journalist and always portrayed ecology as an important field,” Bond remembers, “but I only appreciated its scope and scientific fascination decades later.”
After working on a natural resources survey, Bond took up a position at the Saasveld Forestry Research facility near George, where he experienced the first major development in his life’s work.
“At Saasveld I worked for a remarkable man, Fred Kruger, who instilled in all his researchers the need to do social good but also to follow our curiosity. It was one of the times that I have been blessed to work with brilliant colleagues and minds which all sparked off one another.” Four years at the University of California, Los Angeles exposed him to leading researchers in his field where he graduated with a PhD in ecology in 1988.
Bond credits his willingness to follow his curiosity with two other watershed moments in his career.
“One such defining moment came in 1998 when a dapper-looking stranger, complete with bowtie, came into my office one day. It turned out to be William (Bill) Robertson of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. It was a meeting that would change my life since Robertson made it clear that the Mellon Foundation was more interested in question-based research than applied research. The funding I received from the Mellon Foundation allowed me to ask important questions and support the research of many scientists who are today leaders in their field.”
Later Bond was also to work with fellow ecologists, Ian Woodward and Guy Midgley.
“At the time Woodward was putting together some incredibly brave models testing the widely assumed dominant role that climate played in the development of vegetation. In particular I am grateful to him for acting as a catalyst for my own perspective to change from the regional to the global. I had grown up in grass country and I think in some ways that has been the story of my career, to see what strange things grasses really are and to look at them from the point of view of a blade of grass to a global perspective.”
Science must be treasured as a way of testing human ideas
The first time Bond travelled to give a speech at the Royal Society he was in awe of the beautiful building and august history of the society, including the book which holds the signatures of all Fellows, including the likes of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
“Charles Darwin has always been a hero of mine because he is such a wonderful guide to travelling the world as a biologist and such an astute observer of human society,” Bond says.
How does he feel now that he knows he too will write his name in the same book?
“I think at this moment in time when misinformation is a real danger and when the biomes that I have spent my career studying are under serious threat, it is a great honour to be recognised by an institution such as the Royal Society which promotes the role of science.
“Science has given us a way to test new human ideas and that is something to be treasured. Reason has been such a powerful tool for us humans, but logic alone is not the answer. In fact, science requires the imagination to make connections that lead to new discoveries and this creativity comes from all sorts of sources, including art, music, myth and poetry. I think that’s where South Africa and Africa has much to offer: our perspective is unique and valuable; it leads to new ways of seeing.”
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