Professor Sir Gareth Roberts
Physicist and President of Wolfson College who put science education on the political map
The recent news that applications for university places in the sciences have soared this year would have gladdened Sir Gareth Roberts's heart. With rises of 11.3 per cent in chemistry and 12.2 per cent in his beloved physics, it appears that his 2002 report, SET for Success, which looked at ways of making science careers more attractive to young people, is bearing spectacular fruit.
As an eminent physicist, Roberts was particularly concerned with the development of science education, but his influence on social and educational policy was far more broadly based. Whether in his roles as campaigning chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancel-lors and Principals (CVCP), architect of the new Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) or president of the Science Council, and numerous other bodies, he exerted a profound impact on the landscape of higher education in Britain, and indeed beyond. A man of vision, and tireless energy, he set the agendas for others to follow.
Gareth Gwyn Roberts was born in 1940 in the quarrying town of Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and brought up, together with his twin sister, Gwyneth, and younger sister, Enid, in a Welsh-speaking family. He was plagued by ill-health when young, and it is possible that long enforced absences from school nurtured both his passionate commitment to education and the unyielding determination he displayed throughout his life.
During his early career he remained faithful to North Wales, taking a first-class physics degree and PhD, followed by a period of lecturing, at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. An appointment ensued in industry as a research physicist for the Xerox Corporation, in Rochester, New York, before he returned to academia in Britain, first at the New University of Ulster, where he rose to be Dean of the school of Physical Sciences, before moving to the University of Durham to become head of the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics.
In 1985 he took on a dual role, as visiting Professor of Electronic Engineering at the University of Oxford, where he maintained a research group, and chief scientist, rising to director of research, at Thorn EMI.
Roberts was the author of more than 200 papers, several patents, and two books Insulating Films on Semiconductors (1979) and Langmuir-Blodgett Films (1990). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984, and received the Holweck Medal in 1986 for his work in molecular electronics.
His career took a new direction in 1991 when he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. Without doubt his tenure there was supremely successful: Sheffield was rapidly catapulted up the league tables for teaching and research.
For many members of staff, however, it was an uncomfortable time, as new standards and methods of organisation were introduced. Roberts was a genial, humane man, but his twinkling eyes could rapidly turn steely grey if he was crossed. Nonetheless, staff summoned to his breakfast meetings felt it churlish to complain, as it was well known that when he strode into the room at 8am he would already have been at work for three hours.
Blessed with superhuman energy, Roberts was perhaps less tolerant than he might have been of the weaknesses of others. He was no elitist, however: one of his great legacies at Sheffield is the Early Outreach scheme and Concordat with inner-city schools to ensure access to university education for underprivileged pupils.
Robertss commitment to the University of Sheffield was matched by his support for the areas regeneration. He was a board member of the Regional Development Agency and director of Sheffield Health Authority, as well as founder and director of the Sheffield First Partnership Group.
His appointment as chairman of the CVCP in 1995 marked his entry on to the national political stage. His legendary refusal to meet the Minister of State for Further and Higher Education in protest at the cuts being imposed on universities signalled the development of a concerted effort by the CVCP and the unions to challenge the underfunding of higher education. The result was the government-commissioned Dearing inquiry, which, reporting in 1997, mirrored many of the recommendations of the CVCP, including the introduction of means-tested tuition fees.
Roberts was knighted for services to higher education in 1997. It is a challenge to chronicle the numerous positions of influence he held from this point on. He was president of the Institute of Physics, 1998-2000, and founding president of the Science Council in 2000. The council received its Royal Charter in 2003. Roberts chaired the Research Careers Initiative Strategy Group, publishing a final report in 2002 that has set the standard for creating career development paths for contract research staff within universities.
In the same year also came the publication of his SET for Success report, commissioned by the Treasury, which outlined a series of recommendations to improve the education and supply of people with science and engineering skills. The Government embraced all its findings, increasing Research Council funding for science and creating a dramatic improvement in conditions for graduate students. SET for Success also addressed the provision of science teaching in schools.
In 2001 Roberts left Sheffield to take up the presidency of Wolfson College, Oxford. where he extended his work on national and international educational policy. Most notably he chaired the review of the Research Assessment Exercise, producing a new methodology for assessments. He subsequently acted as an educational adviser in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai.
Memberships of review bodies and organisations came thick and fast. In 2006 he assumed the presidency of the Association of Science Education and became chairman of the Engineering and Technology Board. In addition, he produced a report on UK-US academic collaboration and created a partnership between the British Library and the Library of Congress for arts and social science researchers.
He retained an involvement in the business world through his visiting professorship at the Saïd Business School at Oxford and his directorship of Isis Innovation, the universitys technology transfer company. He was also chairman of Medical Solutions plc and a director of Global Education Management Systems UK.
Throughout his life Roberts was haunted by the ghost of an alternative career; he had once had a trial for Manchester City, and his passion for football, and in particular Tottenham Hotspur, ran close behind his passion for education and his family. He maintained an ebullient optimism that affected all who met him. He conceded little to his illness, working for Wolfson until the day he died.
Roberts was a man of extraordinary vision, energy and determination, but also of great generosity and warmth. He helped nurture innumerable careers and will be remembered by his former students and colleagues with intense respect and affection. He died having packed at least two lives into his 66 years.
He is survived by his first wife and their two sons and daughter, and by his second wife, Carolyn, and his two stepdaughters.
Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, FRS, President of Wolfson College, Oxford, was born on May 16, 1940. He died of cancer on February 6, 2007, aged 66.
© The Times, London March 20, 2007.