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Professor Ron Edwards (1930-2007)

 

Professor Ron Edwards

Ronald Walter Edwards, biologist: born Birmingham 7 June 1930; Biologist, Freshwater Biological Association 1953-58; Senior Principal and Senior Principal Scientific Officer, Water Pollution Research Laboratory 1958-68; Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) 1968-90 (Emeritus); Deputy Chairman, Welsh Water Authority 1983-89; Chairman, National Parks Review Panel 1989-91; CBE 1992; Chairman, Sea Empress Environmental Evaluation Committee 1996-98; died Cardiff 11 July 2007.

In 1968 Ron Edwards became Professor of Applied Ecology and head of a new Department of Applied Biology at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST). Initially focusing on the severely polluted - but recovering - rivers of the South Wales coalfield, he developed what was then one of the UK's strongest freshwater research groups. He established a long-running master's programme in Applied Hydrobiology where a significant proportion of biological staff recruited into the water industry were trained.

Around a large, government-funded project to examine potential water transfers into southern Britain from Craig Goch reservoir, he inaugurated a successful field centre in central Wales that contributed internationally on upland river ecology, amphibian research and ornithology. Astute detective work showed, for example, how the fidgeting (or "bioturbation") of fly larvae in river sediments critically affected their oxygen concentrations. Edwards used existing models to illustrate how the annually uniform temperature of chalk streams favoured the growth of trout, which natural historians had assumed was due to abundant food.

While some would judge his science as too eclectic to place him among Britain's elite, others would see his oeuvre as the product of an intellect flexible enough to confront the most pressing issues. In an epoch of growing environmental awareness, there was an increasing need for scientists to advise government, and few responded more ably than Edwards.

Already by the early 1970s, he had served on the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and key committees of the Nature Conservancy, joining the Council of the Water Research Centre and the Welsh Water Authority in 1973. His appointment as Deputy Chairman of the latter in 1983 led to his joining the board of the National Rivers Authority and the Environment Agency, as water management in the UK divided regulators from privatised utilities. Edwards' influence ensured a strong scientific contribution: he argued, for example, for maintaining a Science Directorate in the Welsh Water Authority and establishing fishery research units; and supported large-scale research programmes on acid rain. He advised select committees in both Houses of Parliament, for example on European water directives, and river and estuarial pollution.

At the merger of UWIST with University College Cardiff in 1988, Edwards was among many senior staff who were asked to take retirement, but one of his most significant contributions now followed. He chaired a major review of the 40-year history and attributes of the National Parks which in 1991 produced the "Edwards Report" on whether the parks were "fit for the future", now seen as an important contribution towards the Environment Act of 1995. The parks were revised in purpose and governance to reflect concerns about conservation and education. However, Edwards' recommendations about "quiet enjoyment" of the National Parks were not incorporated into the Act, and vigorous debate has followed.

Born in 1930, and graduating from Birmingham in 1953 with a First in Zoology and Comparative Physiology, Edwards initially joined the Freshwater Biological Association in preference to pursuing a PhD. Inside five years, he was asked to head a group examining the biology of polluted rivers at the government-funded Water Pollution Research Laboratory (WPRL). There he displayed all the key attributes that would mark his subsequent career: a talent for experimental ecology, a desire to solve environmental problems, a flair for leadership, and an intuitive grasp of how science-led decisions could influence policy and practice. Following his DSc (1965) at Birmingham on oxygen dynamics in polluted rivers, he was appointed to the chair of Applied Ecology at UWIST, where he remained until his retirement.

Edwards' scientific achievements were remarkable for their breadth and innovation. Problems he addressed included the oxygen balance and aeration of polluted rivers; the ecology of sewage treatment; the management of river plants; the effects on rivers or lakes of pesticides, organic waste, colliery effluents, river regulation, acid rain, angling and changing land use; the conservation of lowland drainage systems; and the ecology of reservoir plankton.

He was well-informed, energetic, spontaneously witty and sometimes astonishingly frank, but his candour masked real sensitivity, generosity and insight that made him an inspirational figure to many. A skilled communicator and astute politician, he had a remarkable ability to see clearly and honestly through what others found confusing. This trait found its best expression in the chairmanship of public meetings at which his audience would be captivated by his every nuance of thought.

Throughout his retirement, Ron Edwards continued to advise NGOs - for example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Worldwide Fund for Nature - and statutory organisations in an ad hoc fashion, and he was still influencing the appraisal of river habitats at the time of his death. In the last year, he had moved with his partner of 40 years, John, to an idyllic streamside house in west Wales, where his huge collection of Staffordshire figures (on which he also published under the nom de plume "Arnold Shelton") lined the shelves.

Steve Ormerod

"Reprinted by permission of The Independent, Obituaries, 11 August".