Thank you, Georgina, from us all
An appreciation of Georgina Mace, who passed away on 19th September 2020. Colleague and friend, IUCN Commission member Eleanor Jane Milner-Gulland reflects on Georgina’s legacy in the conservation movement.
Photo: Javi Martínez on elmundo.es.
If you look at Georgina Mace's Wikipedia page you will see a long list of honours and awards. These include Fellow of the Royal Society (the highest honour for a scientist in the UK), Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (!), honorary degrees, and many prizes from scientific and ecological societies (e.g. the President's Medal from the British Ecological Society). These awards show the very high esteem in which she was held, as well as reflecting her major contributions to science and policy, but they hardly scratch the surface - and really don't reflect the warm, humorous, sharp, unassuming and thoughtful person we all knew.
I first met Georgina in 1991 as a young post-doc. I was asked to join a group she was leading, to develop the categories and criteria for the IUCN Red List. This followed a revolutionary paper which she'd written with Russ Lande setting out a proposal for more objective classification of species based on their extinction risk. The results of that early work are obvious to all - the Red List is now an enormously influential and respected categorisation of species by their extinction risk. But it all started quite modestly, with a small group meeting on a regular basis in a back room of the Zoological Society of London.
I was overawed - to be part of a group consisting of some of the smartest, most influential conservation scientists in the world, and for no obvious reason. But Georgina made me feel at home, she ensured that my voice was given just as much respect as everyone else's. That first major experience with collaborative working and understated but effective leadership left me with a foundational understanding of how to do science in a respectful and generous way - also tinged with humour. It was just a lot of fun! My strongest memory of those days was once when we were arguing about some point in the group and, unusually, I disagreed with her; we were mostly on the same wavelength because we were both coming from a relatively scientific perspective. She smiled at me and said "Oh, E.J., I thought you were my friend!". I almost burst with pride.
I tell this story not because there is anything special about it. That's the impressive thing about Georgina. If you look at the tributes pouring in on twitter, so many of them are the same - about people's lives being enriched by contact with her, whether brief or prolonged, and often at an early stage in their career. How many people had a boost to their confidence at a critical stage, learnt how to lead from watching her example, and went on to have more successful, more fulfilling careers as a result? A great many, judging from these tributes. This example was particularly galvanising for women. Georgina had three children, yet she rose to the top of her profession. She was kind, yet stood no nonsense. In the early days, she was often the only woman in a room full of men. We were inspired that we could perhaps emulate her.
Georgina was particularly in demand to attend workshops and chair meetings. Slightly terrifying because she never shirked from telling you what she thought of your ideas, but if you got the seal of approval from Georgina, you knew you were on to something good. She was a master at distilling to the essence of an issue and cutting straight to the weak point in any argument. While an approachable leader, she was not afraid to do what needed to be done to put an organisation back on track; I saw her in operation as Director of the Institute of Zoology, reorganising the publications team of the British Ecological Society, leading the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London. Sometimes the changes were painful, but she was always proved right in the end.
The trajectory from "pure" scientist, to conservation scientist, to contributor to policy is becoming more well-trodden now, but Georgina was a pioneer. Her first paper, published in 1980 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was entitled "Brain size and ecology in small mammals and primates". In the mid-80s she started to publish more applied research alongside her pure science - particularly focussed on conservation genetics. This science continued, but with the Red List work she launched into the world of practical application of science to real-world conservation issues. Her interests shifted into understanding extinction risk and priority-setting for conservation. She co-organised a landmark symposium at ZSL in 1998 on "Conservation in a Changing World" - a prescient topic. Yet another contribution ahead of the curve was her co-authored 1999 piece in Nature entitled "It's time to work together and stop duplicating efforts...". More true now than ever.
The further evolution of her career was marked by her piece in Conservation Biology in 2003 with Walter Reid urging conservation biologists to take part in the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment so that policy would be informed by the best science; her deep involvement in the MEA (and then the National Ecosystem Assessment for the UK) ensured exactly that. These landmark contributions highlighted her capability as an interdisciplinary scientist with a keen appreciation of how to ensure that science contributed to policy. She contributed to so many of the assessments and processes that have formed the foundation of governmental action for conservation in recent years, notably working closely with economists.
To finish, two vignettes about the last few days before she died. On 10th September, an incredibly important paper came out in Nature on which she was a leader; this showed that there is still scope to "bend the curve" and restore nature (a framing she was instrumental in developing); conservation is necessary but not sufficient, we need systems change as well. On 18th September, one of Georgina's PhD students had the very first paper from her PhD accepted, on parameter uncertainty and bushmeat sustainability for duikers, which we were proudly celebrating when we heard the news. Unassuming, private, humane, deeply caring about the many people who counted her as a friend or mentor, and one of the most influential conservationists of her generation.
Georgina had been ill off and on for a long while, though she never made a fuss. Recently she told me that she was going to reduce her commitments so as to do more of the things she enjoyed, including being with her family at a new house by the river in Oxfordshire. She had also just become a grandmother. She wasn't given long enough to enjoy these times. Georgina we will miss you terribly - and thank you from all of us!