Obituary: Geoffrey Oldham (1929-2017)

Geoff Oldham

Professor Geoffrey Oldham, who has died at the age of 88, helped to shape the field of science and technology policy research, and has had a long-term impact on the organisations that fund, conduct and use it.

Known to all as ‘Geoff’, he was one of the founders of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex in 1966, along with Chris Freeman and Jackie Fuller.

He dedicated his life's work towards building pioneering institutions that advocated for the intelligent use of science, technology and innovation policy towards the benefit of a life sustaining, equitable world.

He was a tireless advocate for education and gender equity in science and technology, and his influence spanned the globe – from China to Canada, the UK to South Africa –his kindness and enthusiasm were felt by a vast network of colleagues and friends.

Geoff’s university education was as a geoscientist, culminating in a PhD from the University of Toronto on gravity surveying in Alaska. He then worked as a geophysicist with Standard Oil of California, which took him to China and South America.

Yet, he began to think about achieving something different as a scientist: something that would help to harness the world’s science and technology much more effectively to eliminating the depths of poverty he had observed in Latin America. He found his way into science and technology studies through an exchange project in China.

When Geoff took up his position as Deputy Director of the SPRU in 1966, he pushed ahead with developing policy research about science and technology in developing country contexts and was a key figure in the SPRU ‘Developing Countries Group’.

In contrast to prevailing practices, which relied mainly on the international transfer of technology, know-how and scientific understanding from rich countries, Geoff argued that much greater emphasis should be placed on enhancing the capacity of developing countries to innovate and create their own technology know-how and science.

His vision was for SPRU’s impact to be about strengthening the capabilities of developing countries to analyse their own science and technology policy problems and to generate and implement their own policy solutions. This was revolutionary at the time.

During his time as Deputy Director of SPRU, Geoff also played a pivotal role in setting up what has become called the “jewel in the crown of Canadian Aid”; the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

As Director of SPRU from 1982 to 1992, Geoff strengthened the unit through the extension of both its research and teaching. In particular, he rapidly expanded SPRU’s doctoral training, with a large proportion of students coming from (and returning to) developing countries, as well as developing a new research programme on environmental sustainability.

In 1990, he was awarded a CBE for “services to science”.

After stepping down from his ten-year tenure as SPRU Director, Geoff continued to participate in a wide range of boards, trusts, advisory bodies and policy review missions, including several high-level UN bodies concerned with science, technology and development and a period as Science Advisor to the President of IDRC (1992-96).

Through his later work with the UN, Geoff became a leading voice on addressing the widespread gender imbalances in science and technology.

Yet, he remained actively involved with SPRU, contributing his insights at the launch of SPRU’s China Seminar series, where he presented ‘Fifty years of Science and Technology in China: A Personal Account’.

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Posted on behalf of: SPRU
Last updated: Wednesday, 8 November 2017