Prof Phil Grime Reminiscences

In this special blog post Ken Thompson (former Editor of Functional Ecology) and Mark Rees (former Editor of Journal of Ecology) have collected some memories of a small number of folks whose careers and lives were touched by Professor J. Philip Grime, who sadly died earlier this year. As well as being a key figure in the British Ecological Society, as Mark and Ken outline, since 2020 Journal of Ecology has published the Grime review series, named in his honour.

Prof Grime (Phil) was one of the doyens of plant ecology and his work, both published papers and books, has had (and continues to have) an enormous influence of plant ecology across the globe (for a brief summary see this obituary from Simon Pierce and Jason Fridley). Within the BES he was also very active as Board member for J. Ecol., Council Member, Vice President and Honorary Member. However, what we hope to do in this blog post is give a more personal account of Phil by those who knew him well and worked with him over the years. MR first met Phil when he was the chair of a discussion meeting session at the Royal Society. I sat next to Phil at the front very nervous before my talk, Phil and I chatted a for a bit and after saying how nervous I was Phil commented “I love these Discussion Meetings you can get really stuck into the speakers” not what I wanted to hear! Of course, he didn’t get stuck in but this shows Phil’s wicked sense of humour. He also had a great line in put downs – he never had much time for the demographic approach to plant ecology, describing it as “Putting from the tee”, ouch! Right, onto the people who knew him well.

Prof Mark Rees and Dr. Ken Thompson

Dr. Ken Thompson

It’s 1974, and the 20-year old Ken Thompson is approaching the end of his undergraduate degree….

I’d managed to fall in love with botany, and especially with plant ecology, so the obvious next step was a PhD. But where? John Harper at Bangor or Phil Grime at Sheffield seemed to be the obvious choices. Specifically, I’d read Harper (1967) and Grime (1965), and concluded that both had a vision of where plant ecology ought to be going, but that those visions were radically different. So, nothing for it but to go and talk to both of them. I came away from those conversations with the firm conviction that I didn’t fancy spending three years counting buttercups (or whatever), and that I preferred Phil’s ‘big picture’ approach. At that point I’d no idea what part of the big picture I’d be colouring in, and I don’t think Phil had either, but I knew it was going to be interesting. I ended up applying the ‘getting-to-be-very-good-at-something-makes-you-bad-at-something-else’ approach to seed germination and soil seed banks, subjects that have followed me around ever since.

Later, after I’d left Sheffield (although I returned later), Phil’s approach was formalised as the Integrated Screening Programme (ISP), always described by Phil as ‘an MOT Test for plants’. Of course, the ISP was all about trade-offs, and there’s nothing revolutionary about that, but Phil was the first to see the potential of applying a standardised search for trade-offs on a massive scale, massive in terms of both numbers of species and range of traits. It was the dawn, in retrospect, of the trait-based approach to plant ecology, something that now dominates much of the subject. The aims were to 1. establish the range of variation in selected plant traits, 2. recognise recurring patterns of ecological and evolutionary specialisation, and thus 3. devise a functional classification of plants relevant to the analysis of communities and ecosystems and the management of vegetation. Ultimately, almost all this work supported Phil’s original idea of three distinct, fundamental and essentially mutually incompatible avenues of evolutionary specialisation: CSR.

Eventually, although the ISP continued, and indeed continued to thrive, the Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology’s (i.e. Phil’s) agenda expanded to include experimental field manipulations, microcosm experiments and modelling. But right from planning through to analysis and interpretation, all these other activities were underpinned by ISP data, and it became hard to imagine life without the ISP database. I remember graduate students and postdocs from other institutions almost crying with relief when they found the species they were working on was in the ISP, which meant we could tell them everything about it, including the answers to questions it hadn’t yet occurred to them to ask.

One could give many examples of the synergy of field and lab, but an early example, and still one of my favourites, is MacGillivray et al. (1995), which tested the ability of the pivotal axis of stress-tolerance to predict resistance and resilience of five types of herbaceous vegetation to three types of extreme event (frost, drought and fire). The results confirmed that the syndrome of plant traits associated with stress tolerance was positively correlated with resistance to extreme events, but negatively correlated with resilience. In other words, if you know enough about the traits of enough species, you can predict how the world works. Phil saw this very clearly back in 1965, and I don’t think that anything that happened since changed his mind (or mine).

Looking back, it was both an enormous privilege and a massive stroke of luck (for me) to arrive in Sheffield in 1974, just as Phil’s work was really taking off and starting to become well known. Like many others, I owe Phil a huge debt, and I’ll miss him a lot.

Grime, J.P. (1965) Comparative experiments as a key to the ecology of flowering plants. Ecology, 45, 513-515.

Harper, J.L. (1967) A Darwinian approach to plant ecology. Journal of Applied Ecology, 4, 267-290.

MacGillivray, C.W., Grime, J.P., & the ISP Team (1995) Testing predictions of resistance and resilience of vegetation subjected to extreme events. Functional Ecology, 9, 640-649.

L-R (standing): Stuart Band, Rosemary Booth, George Hendry, Jonathan Kielty, David Corker, Greg Spring, Sarah Buckland, Lauchlan Fraser, Chris Thorpe, Sue Hillier
Kneeling: Phil Grime, Ric Colasanti, Ken Thompson, Brigitta Erschbamer

Dr. Carla Bossard

I met Professor Phillip Grimes when he came to visit Professor Marcel Rejmanek, when I was a doctoral graduate student in Marcel’s lab.  By the end of Phil’s weeklong visit it was arranged for me to become a post-doc at the Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology at Sheffield University.  While doing that post doc with Phil and his colleagues I learned: 1. How to get maximum information out of every experiment, 2. One does not have to spend 24/7 in the laboratory or field to be a worthwhile scientist, 3. Collaboration improves the quality of research and 4. Being an interesting person is just as important in life as doing interesting research. Phil was a bowler on his local cricket team, enjoyed cooking for dinner guests and his many friends, and relished traveling, as well as being a renowned scientist.

The research I was a part of in the Millersdale chalklands in the field and ascertaining the basic physiological and anatomical traits of many British plant species in the laboratory is still regularly cited by plant scientists.   I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to work with and enjoy the company of Dr. Phillip Grime and the wise and hospitable colleagues he drew together in his lab.

L-R: Ken Thompson, Janet Hodgson, Carla Bossard, John Hodgson, Pat Thompson, Earl Bossard

Professor Jason Fridley

I met Phil as a graduate student during his visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2000. He was already one of my heroes, and I remember how nervous I was to pick him up from his hotel and take him to my new field experiment. I was astonished to find such a renowned scientist interested in the ideas of a graduate student. Within the next year we were discussing a postdoctoral proposal and my first visit to the UK would be to stay with Phil and his wife Sarah in Crosspool before the 2001 BES symposium. That proposal would eventually fund my postdoc with Phil at Tapton Experimental Garden in Sheffield between 2004 and 2007, which involved the functional role of intraspecific genetic diversity in the grasslands of Cressbrook Dale in Derbyshire. Although other research at Tapton was winding down by then, there were still vestiges of bygone experiments everywhere, and I had the incredible luxury of having hours of discussion with Phil nearly every day. Even at the time I knew how lucky I was to have such a rigorous ecological education from one of the great minds in the history of plant biology. Phil was at heart a pugilist—I watched him get heated with another player in a cricket match he played in around his 80th birthday—and he relished debate, particularly if it concerned one of his own theories (and nearly everything concerned one of his theories). At the same time, he was a patient listener and genuinely wanted to understand other points of view. It was also a joyous time to be around Phil and Sarah, as they started a family about the same time my wife and I did.

When I returned to the US in 2007, my first grant was to revive support for the Buxton Climate Change experiment in Harpur Hill—an effort that was made possible by Phil, who had (with Andrew Askew) kept the experiment going with no grant support for years after NERC funding had run out. (Today, Buxton, at nearly 30 years old, is among the longest continuously running climate manipulations in the world.) The grant meant that for the next 10 years I would visit Phil for several weeks each summer, usually in the cramped Buxton porta-cabin. Phil did not drive, and he’d have to take two buses and a taxi to get to the cabin from his home, so sometimes he and I would stay at a B&B in Buxton for a week or more. I suspect we appeared to other guests as father and son, as we needled each other about our research papers, British and American politics, and of course sports (he, cricket and Man City football; me, baseball—although Phil knew an awful lot about the latter and had a predilection for many things American, including Elvis).

This photo from 2017 is the last of Phil and me together, outside the Barrel Inn in Derbyshire, looking south to Cressbrookdale where our collaboration began. Phil continues to be an inspiration for me in his intellectual restlessness, his support of young scientists, and his joie de vivre. I could not have asked for a better mentor.

Phil Grime (left) and Jason Fridley

John Hodgson

Initially, I did not see myself as a good match for Phil’s interests. I am taxonomically inclined and had good contacts at Kew. Unfortunately, their rounds of recruitment were delayed by governmental cutbacks. I was running out of money and so in 1967 I ended up in Sheffield working at the Nature Conservancy Grassland Research Unit. The interview was for a post with Ian Rorison but Phil, who was also present at the interview, was keen to extend the research scope of the group. A taxonomist would be useful for a new vegetation survey of non-grassland habitats. As a result, I was appointed as Phil’s technician. My first task with Phil was to study cyanogenic glycoside distribution in Lotus corniculatus along a moisture gradient (deeper soil to outcrop) in Coombs Dale. We weighed freshly collected leaves in the field. Back in Sheffield I reweighed the now rehydrated leaves and used picric acid impregnated filter paper to test for the presence of glycosides.  To make a good impression, I worked long into the night to finish the measurements and tabulate the results. The following day Phil was enthusiastic about the results but equally (and not for the last time!) clearly had absolutely no appreciation of the amount of work involved. My early career blossomed under Phil. He encouraged me to do an MSc in my spare time and, after telling me that my proposed submission was too good for an MSc, he was instrumental in getting me enrolled on a PhD. I found him fair. For example, on one occasion he had to give a talk at a NERC conference on seed dispersal. He was busy and I was left to generate data. Phil liked the results and, even though he wrote the associated text, he made me the first author. The new vegetation survey that we carried out, together with related laboratory screening of key ecological attributes, heralded a broadening of scope and a rebranding of the group as the Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology. Phil’s observations during the vegetation surveys led to his formulation of CSR strategy theory. Taxonomy, my main interest at the time, is all about the recognition of recurrent patterns. So too was Phil’s brand of ecology. CSR explains much about ecological processes both at the ecosystem and the landscape level. Thus, in relation to land use, the R axis defines mechanical disturbance, the inverse of the S axis identifies eutrophication and the C axis describes abandonment or the reduction in management intensity. The opportunity to learn and to contribute to the development of such overtly relevant ecological generality led me to (partially) abandon taxonomy and kept me in the Sheffield research group for the next thirty years.

We spent a lot of time together during the vegetation survey. One reason for this was that neither of us could drive and we were very reliant upon public transport. Afficionados of public transport routes may spot that many of sites from the northern end of the Peak District were within walking distance of the only through bus route, no 65, Sheffield – Buxton. Moreover, as we travelled with quadrats, a big bag of soil samples, a panga for chopping down tall vegetation and were often wearing soggy waterproofs, obtaining a seat to ourselves was never a problem, even in the rush hour. Phil quite enjoyed the bus journeys. It gave him time to think. I suspect that the many hours he spent latterly strimming around plots at the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Laboratory was similarly spent in cerebral ecology. Finally, no discussion of Phil is complete without some reference to sport. In my early days at Sheffield he often took me to Saturday football matches. Then admission was cheap, and both Sheffield teams were in the top division. I was with him when his beloved Manchester City played both Sheffield teams on the way to the league title in 1968. Phil was a good footballer and an even better cricketer. He also saw sport as a bonding exercise and, because we were a small group, everyone was expected to participate. I could manage the football, where I could hide my lack of skill with defensive brutality. However, cricket was another matter and for reasons that I do not fully understand I was known as ‘dodgy Hodgy’. In one interdepartmental match the ball was skied. I didn’t need to move. It was dropping straight to me. I did not shout “Mine!” I am a realist. Equally, another scenario was unfolding. I could see Phil sprinting towards me from about 20 yards to take my catch. As Phil arrived, pride got the better of me. I stretched up above him and shouldered him away. It may perhaps have been the only catch that I ever held but it illustrates Phil’s highly competitive nature and winning mentality. Nevertheless, whatever happened on the pitch, there was never a post-mortem in the bar after a loss.

The closure of UCPE in 1997 cast a cloud on my subsequent relationship with Phil. The closure came not with an offer of alternative employment, just the statutory minimum redundancy and the option to take early retirement with an unenhanced pension. Our younger daughter was still at primary school and I took early retirement. Subsequently, I tended to keep my distance and our lives and scientific activities slowly drifted apart. The last time I met Phil was about two years ago. He was concerned that achievements of UCPE had never been given the credit they deserved. He wanted my opinion as to which papers should be circulated to influential ecologists to rectify this. I don’t know whether he took this any further. Certainly, Phil lost a few political battles and regarded this as one of them. However, most of his research has stood the test of time. Moreover, he has inspired generations of budding ecologists. Phil was a winner in science as well as sport. I remain strongly influenced by Phil’s work and thinking. It was a privilege to learn at the great man’s feet for thirty years.

L-R: John Hodgson, Ken Thompson, Pat Thompson, Carla Bossard

Professor Carly Stevens

The first time I met Phil Grime was during my PhD, he was chairing the session at BES where I was giving my first conference presentation. I was terrified and knowing Phil Grime, whose work had been so key to plant ecology globally, was listening intently did not help with my nerves. He tried to be gentle in his questioning but Phil always cut to the core of any issues. I guess I didn’t do too badly though because I have worked with Phil on a number of projects since. As a postdoc I spent time at Tapton Gardens working with Phil and Ken Thompson. The work helped to demonstrate that acidification was the main driver of vegetation change in some grasslands as opposed to eutrophication as had previously been thought. Tapton was a wonderful place to work and the lunchtime chats about plant ecology were just as good as the work. I also worked with Phil, together with John Hodgson, to repeat his 1960s vegetation survey of the Sheffield region. The data from the original survey has been so important in the development of ecological theory it was fascinating to pour over the original record sheets. The modern results highlighted how the region has changed since, in particular the increased dominance of bracken.

No matter what project we worked on Phil was always incredibly welcoming and generous, be it dinner with his family, a key to the portacabin at his Buxton climate change experiment, or sharing his data. He also had endless ideas and could always offer a different perspective or an innovative way of tackling a problem. Working at the Buxton Climate Change experiment was a fantastic experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my visits there, catching up with Phil and Andrew Askew over lunch. The weather at Buxton was (and continues to be) notorious and I think I experienced every extreme of weather working there, most of them in one day. But no matter what the weather, while everyone else carefully picked their way across the slope, Phil would be leaping nimbly around. His dedication to the Buxton Climate Change Experiment and his vision in keeping it running for so long have generated incredibly important results and having the opportunity to work there has been amazing. We didn’t always agree but he never held that against me, Phil’s encouragement and support was something I had for many years in developing my career and I am incredibly grateful for that. I will miss the lively, fun and insightful discussions.

Professor Simon Pierce

I first met Phil, although he probably never knew it, as a PhD student attending a conference in Aberystwyth, Wales, in September 1998. Phil was sitting directly in front of me during a lecture on the role of soil fungi in connecting grassland plants into networks. At the end of the lecture, I naïvely asked the speaker whether these plants can form direct plant-to-plant connections between roots (I had some experience of tree species that do this, and have to admit I was a little fixated). To my consternation, the speaker chuckled, eliciting a similar response from many in the audience. Phil, on the other hand, half turned in his seat, not even enough to see me, and whispered over his shoulder, “The roots don’t live long enough”. This simple action sums up Phil’s character perfectly: always willing to explain, ready with a perfectly concise answer, and encouraging students above all. I will always remember Phil first-and-foremost as a professor, not just in title.

Although I later worked at Sheffield, I met Phil just a few times in passing. Ironically, it was only after I moved to Italy that we struck up an e-mail correspondence that grew into Phil’s invitation to write a book together. It really didn’t matter to Phil that my academic background was not stellar; what mattered was that we thought along the same lines and were both enthusiastic about communicating our ideas. Over the course of a year or so, we would send documents and packets of storyboard-like posters and photos between Sheffield and Milan. Throughout the entire process, Phil was always willing to discuss, explain and encourage. Phil had a bit of a reputation as ‘prickly’, but I didn’t get that, and I can honestly say that it was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences I have ever had at work. The book was a huge commitment and we knew from the outset that it wouldn’t make much money; we were simply enthusiastic for the science. This was Phil through and through.

L-R: Jason Fridley, Phil Grime, Sarah Grime, Andrew Askew

Professor Sandra Díaz

I met Phil in person in the autumn of 1991. I had got a postdoc in his lab and was landing at Leeds Airport at night, for the first time in a European country, with all my luggage. So he kindly offered to collect me. My first image of him was a tall, slender man in a long black coat, in the middle of a ferocious rainstorm. Later on, he would describe me on that night as looking vulnerable, lost and soaked. Soaked I was, but I still remember the sense of thrill on having met him and being driven to my accommodation surrounded by the winding stonewalls of Sheffield.

Phil’s 1979 book Plant Strategies and Vegetation Processes had caught my attention while doing my PhD in Córdoba, Argentina. So I wrote to him and a few months later I was warmly welcome in the Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology. At that time, it was a large, convivial, scientifically vibrant scientific community which made me feel at home and opened my scientific horizons enormously.

Phil was keen on initiating a research project on the effects of elevated CO2 at the community and ecosystem levels, at that time a largely unexplored subject, with a next-to-zero budget. We shared a taste for risk, so I gladly accepted. In total, we did three experiments on the effects of elevated CO2 together. Two of them, one on plant and soil interactions in microcosms and another one including herbivores in mesocosms, were great successes. The third, involving mycorrhizas and plants of very different lifestyles living together, was a complete disaster. We simply went too far; in accordance with Phil’s ideas, there is no fertilization and water regime that would suit vastly different plants, especially in small boxes. But this third experiment was far from being a waste of time for me. Because it involved carefully planting thousands of tiny seedlings of different species according to a templet, each seedling fitted with a coloured wire ring indicating the species, and because Phil would always take part in the sweating part of experiments and field work, as well as in the thinking, we spent many, many hours chatting away while doing the planting.

In similar circumstances, my colleagues would probably chat with Phil about sports, his other passion. But I have little appreciation or understanding of cricket or football, so we talked science instead. This involved ecological theory, Yorkshire natural history and also approaches to doing science. And is in this third area that he exerted the deepest influence on my scientific career.  He would say that scientists facing obstacles are like salmons swimming upstream to spawn. Only those prepared to jump high enough and frequently enough reach the best spawning sites. If the scientific subject was theoretically or technically easy, he would continue, someone else would have done it already; so one must be prepared to take theoretical and logistic risks in order to make a difference. I guess the coloured-rings experiment was an example of risks being larger than the benefits, but in every other scientific undertaking I did with him the benefit to cost balance was overwhelmingly positive.

Many more things happened until I met him for the last time, in an Ecosummitt meeting in Montpellier, in 2016. We had the chance to go for nice lunch but got too carried away discussing plant traits in the venue lobby and missed it. Instead we ended up sitting on the ground eating sandwiches, under the baking sun, surrounded by the travelers, street musicians, and dogs that congregate in Montpellier green spaces in summer. He used as a seat the plastic bag with a copy of the fat Comparative Plant Ecology book he was carrying with him everywhere. 

I felt privileged to work with Phil and the UCPE at the time, and such feeling only grew larger as my career developed and I could put things in a wider context.

Dr Ric Colasanti

Phil was a vital source of energy and inspiration at UCPE. During my time there, Phil’s strong sense of belief pushed me to achieve much that has stood me in good stead through my career. From field work on Harpeur Hill, to his passion for the science that drove the work, his intensity powered many of us, myself included. I remain grateful for his encouragement to work for my PhD with Dr. Rod Hunt, a contact I am happy to say I’ve kept over the years.

Phil said to me once, with kindness, that my computer modelling work on CSR was “completely unhindered by any biological knowledge whatsoever”. He was right. It was the strength of CSR theory that it was so logical and complete. When the rules of CSR, that were almost literally dug from the fields of South Yorkshire, were translated into code, an ecology of dots on the screen emerged that was as real and vibrant as the plants in those fields. I knew nothing of the humpback description of biodiversity when I wrote the code or when asked by Phil if the model reproduced it, but there it was in the results. Not for the last time would my models turn out to know more biology than I did. The true spirit of ecology was captured in Phil’s CSR theory. His memory and his genius live on for me every time I run my models.

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