“May you live in interesting times”: memories of Brian Moss


I have twice had to follow presentations Brian Moss, who died last week, at scientific meetings and on both occasions it was a daunting experience.   He had a reputation as a fine scientist, and brought pure ecological thinking to applied science problems in a way that no other freshwater scientist has, in my opinion, ever bettered.   He was, however, extremely critical of the way that Europe, and the UK in particular, had gone about implementation of the Water Framework Directive.  As most of my work over the past decade has focused on just that, a difference of opinion was inevitable.   As the eminent professor, he inevitably started proceedings, giving a witty and erudite plenary talk which won the audience onto his side.  When he sat down and the applause had died away, the hapless defenders of the flawed status quo would start their talks on the back foot.  However, he usually had a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, and I always enjoyed our discussions before and after the sessions.

I remember one occasion in particular, at the British Phycological Society meeting in Birmingham when I had to follow him.   I had a talk prepared and, as he spoke, I saw my carefully planned arguments being undermined and demolished one by one.  I stood up in front of the audience and said: “I agreed with about a third of what Brian said, I disagreed with a third, and the other third I missed because I was rewriting my own talk …”   A decade on, I still disagree with much of what he wrote about the Water Framework Directive.   His scientific logic was usually flawless, but he was never very cognizant of the way that large public sector bodies operated, and the compromises that were necessary to get 28 countries working together.  Perhaps he didn’t need to be: I wrote to him after he was awarded the CIEEM Medal in 2010, saying that he was “the piece of grit in the oyster shell that was necessary if a pearl of great price was to be produced”.

The first edition of his textbook Ecology of Freshwaters was one of the first books about freshwater science that I read, and one of the very first seminars that I attended was a talk by him on his work on the Norfolk Broads.  In that talk, he managed to make ecology both fascinating and relevant, and that, in turn, probably encapsulates his career.  His textbook, now in the fourth edition, is now a book that I recommend to my own students, and I also suggest that they might like to try “Lakes, Lochs and Loughs”, his most recent work (an update of Macan and Worthington’s classic New Naturalist book on lakes) as lighter background reading.   We live in a world where the specialist is valued over the generalist, and it was refreshing to follow Brian’s text as he wrote knowledgably about all the different groups of organisms that inhabit our standing waters, and how they interact.  I thought the book was a little over-written in places, but he succeeds in finding some clever metaphors as he attempts to make the intricacies of freshwater science accessible to wider audiences.

Sometimes, we agreed to disagree.   Once, I recall, after a vigorous discussion, we concluded by agreeing that the challenges that the Water Framework Directive posed were encapsulated by the apocryphal Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.   With Brian around, they usually were.