Sir Gareth Gwyn Roberts. 16 May 1940 — 6 February 2007

Cyril Hilsum


Sir Gareth Roberts made a stunning impact on the UK science scene, and his influence and reports brought optimism back into the university sector at a time when morale was low. He will be most remembered for his term as Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) in 1995, when the UK government announced savage cuts in university funding, and the CVCP responded by a threat to impose a levy on all first-year students. This led to the 1997 Dearing inquiry into higher education, which recommended many of the points made by Roberts, including fees on a loan basis, access for disadvantaged groups, and support for the vital role of university teaching. The Labour government accepted most of the recommendations, and large increases in university funding followed. In 2001 Roberts was asked to review the problem of the growing shortage of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, and his report, SET for success, was specifically commended by the Prime Minister. Additional funds were provided to raise the stipend of research students, to bring forward measures to recruit and retain science and engineering teachers, to modernize school and university science laboratories, and to create a new national centre for science teaching. He was primarily responsible, as Chairman of the Research Careers Initiative, for implementation of the Concordat, which set out clearly for the first time the need for a career structure for research students, and the way forward to achieve this. His prominence in the national scene might easily cause his earlier scientific achievements to be overlooked, although they were most significant. He first concentrated on the physics governing the injection of electrons into insulators and wide-gap semiconductors, and the laws governing their transit. This led to an interest in organic semiconductors, and his was the first publication on an efficient low-voltage organic light-emitting diode (LED). Concerned that evaporation harmed the properties of organic thin films, he improved the design of the Langmuir–Blodgett trough and developed their technique into a reliable method for the preparation and study of organics. He used the trough for research on a variety of materials, and many groups around the world followed his leadership, gaining much knowledge on the optical and electronic properties of organic conductors and insulators.