Geoffrey Oldham obituary

Other lives: A founder of the globally influential Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University

My colleague and friend Geoffrey Oldham, who has died aged 88, was one of the founders in 1966 of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. He dedicated his life’s work to building pioneering institutions that advocated the intelligent and innovative use of science and technology for a sustainable and equitable world. His influence came to span the globe, and his kindness and enthusiasm were felt by a vast network of colleagues and friends.

Son of Evelyn (nee Brooke) and Herbert Oldham, Geoff was born in Harden, West Yorkshire, where his father was a manager with the NatWest bank. He went to Bingley grammar and studied geology at the University of Reading. He was accepted for further studies at both Cambridge and Toronto universities; 10 days after his wedding in September 1951 to Brenda Raven, they sailed for Canada.

Having obtained a PhD in geophysics from the University of Toronto, Geoff worked in oil company exploration, focusing on South America. Yet, he began to think about achieving something different as a scientist: helping to harness the world’s science and technology more effectively to eliminate the depths of poverty he had observed in Latin America. This led to a career change, via a period of research about science and technology in China and other Asian countries.

As deputy director of the SPRU from 1966 and as its director from 1982 to 1992, he pushed forward policy research about science and technology in developing countries. In contrast to prevailing practices, which relied mainly on the transfer of technology and science from rich countries, Geoff argued that much greater emphasis should be placed on enhancing the capacity of developing countries to create their own. This was revolutionary at the time.

Geoff also played a pivotal role in 1970 in setting up what has been called the “jewel in the crown of Canadian aid”, the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC). He then spearheaded its science and technology policy programme, fostering the development of policy research across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 1990, he was appointed CBE for services to science.

After his tenure as SPRU director, Geoff continued in numerous advisory roles – in particular with high-level UN bodies, with the IDRC in Canada and with ministers of science and technology in China. He also became a tireless advocate of action to address gender imbalances in science and technology, working with international initiatives such as GenderInSITE.

Geoff helped to shape the field of science and technology policy research, and had a long-term impact on the organisations that fund, conduct and use it.

He is survived by Brenda, by their son Keith and daughter, Janice, and by 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Two of his sons, David and Jon, predeceased Geoff.

Martin Bell

The GuardianTramp

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