Remembering Geoff Oldham

Professor Geoffrey Oldham, who received an Honorary Doctorate from York University in 2006, was Chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Development, a founder of the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and founding Director of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. He died October 1, 2017.

Early in the 1990s, two of the Commissioners on the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development made a very bold decision.  Geoffrey Oldham, the Commissioner for the United Kingdom, and George Waardenburg, the Commissioner for the Netherlands, decided to form an UNCSTD Working Group to deal with the relevance of gender for the promotion of science and technology in development.  The mandate of the “Gender Working Group” was to develop a new set of policy guidelines to improve the contributions of science and technology to women’s needs and interests as a basis for sustainable development.

Drs. Oldham and Waardenburg, were both highly respected members of the Commission, but their overture into social science, especially into the consideration of gender issues, was greeted with considerable amusement by the other Commissioners.  However, they were able to gather together six other Commissioners to join the Group.  Since this was new territory for Oldham and Waardenburg, they first decided to recruit eight senior women gender specialists in a variety of fields to act as Advisors to the GWG.  In turn, the Commissioners and their Advisory Group recruited a number of gender “experts” to carry out the actual policy research for the GWG.  Emeritus Professor Bonnie Kettel from the Faculty of Environmental Studies was the “expert” on gender and the environment, and she collaborated with Dr. Farkhonda Hassan, the environment Advisor from Egypt, and Dr. Waardenburg, as the environment trio.

Through a series of meetings beginning in 1993, the overall team provided a series of working papers on the relevance of gender issues to a variety of development concerns, resulting in a new set of gender policy guidelines for UNCSTD.  Once these policy guidelines were in place, UNCSTD established a Gender Advisory Board to further mobilize its commitment to consideration of gender issues in science and technology in development.  The central element in the policy framework was the legitimacy and importance of women’s full participation as environmental, scientific and technological decision-makers.  The Gender Advisory Board of UNCSTD was headquartered at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, with Professor Kettel as the first Co-ordinator, a role that was subsequently taken over by Sophia Huyer, an FES doctoral candidate at the time, who graduated in 2000.  The GAB established three regional sub-units, in Jakarta, Nairobi, and Montevideo, where the actual engagements of the GAB of UNCSTD actually took place.   Altogether, between the GWG and the GAB, this was a large, complex and multifaceted approach to mobilizing interest and engagement in gendered aspects of development world-wide.

The important aspect of all this is that none of this would have happened with Drs. Oldham and Waardenburg.  Geoff Oldham moved mountains in this regard, developing the concern, recruiting the Commissioners and Advisors, acting as the key promoter of both the GWG and the GAB, and putting his substantial reputation on the line to make a significant difference in a highly masculinized realm.

He continued as a committed advocate of gender and science and technology issues until his death. He remained as Chair of the Gender Advisory Board until 2006, and was subsequently a member of the Steering Committee of a related initiative jointly founded by the Gender Advisory Board, The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Organization for Women in the Developing World (OWSD), and the Elsevier Foundation, called GenderInSITE – Gender in Science, Innovation, Technology and Engineering.

Although a citizen of the UK, Prof. Oldham had a special relationship with Canada. He received his PhD in Geology from the University of Toronto under the supervision of renowned Canadian geophysicist and geologist John Tuzo Wilson. In the late 60s, he was a member of the team which designed and drafted the Act of the Canadian Parliament which established the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and later enjoyed recounting his meeting with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the designing of the Act. During the early 90s he returned to Canada as a Special Advisor on Science to the President of IDRC, Keith Bezanson.

Prof. Oldham’s work in science and technology policy and developing countries is recognized as unparalleled. He has advised the governments of South Africa, China and Vietnam among others.

In 2006, York University recognized Prof. Oldham’s achievements in Canada by awarding him an Doctorate of Laws. It was an award he was immensely proud of.