The newspaper of Imperial College London
 Issue 147, 8 December 2004
Imperial spin-out floats on stock exchange«
Spotlight on spin-outs…«
Around the tree«
Imperial students back London’s 2012 Olympic bid«
Arts animateur for Blyth Centre«
New pulse for medicine«
From Fleet Street to Forest Fairy«
The world in microcosm: an interview with Gordon Conway«
Virtual learning in patient safety drive«
Tanaka graduate voted MBA student of the year«
Royal Society prize for astronomer«
What’s on…«
In brief«
Media mentions«

The world in microcosm: an interview with Gordon Conway

by Tanya Reed

Gordon Conway
Gordon Conway

GORDON Conway returned to Imperial this week to take in the first annual meeting of the Imperial College London development advisory board, which was held on Monday. Its 15 members, including five alumni, help provide independent objective guidance to the College on its fundraising activities, while being advocates and enthusiastic communicators of Imperial’s mission and vision.

In 1948, the 10-year-old Gordon Conway and his classmates at Latchmere Road Primary School in Kingston, found themselves on a playing field as their teacher, keen to teach her pupils about life outside the classroom, hurled an open square into the air.

“We were told to study the different species of flowers, plants and insects where it fell,” recalls the retiring president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “In that one moment, I saw a whole world in microcosm that I knew nothing about. To be taught ecology at that age was just phenomenal.”

Over 55 years on, he is relinquishing his crown and with it some of the power to change lives across the globe. But not before receiving the ultimate recognition for his work-being elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society.

The man who helped mastermind ecologically sound farming on a global scale, spending 30 years in places like Borneo, India and Thailand, and who spearheaded ‘sustainable agriculture’, a set of practices for controlling pests and boosting yields without heavy reliance on chemicals, is clearly delighted with being elected to the UK’s national academy of science.

“It’s the recognition of many disciplines but I’ve always been an applied ecologist first and foremost,” he explains. “Some get this fellowship as talented researchers when they are quite young, but for me, it’s a recognition of both field and theoretical research and the application of ecology to problems of agricultural and health in developing countries.”

It also recognises policy and management within the Rockefeller Foundation where 70 per cent of work is in science-related fields. His successes with the organisation are too many to mention, but his latest, helping establish an HIV programme in Africa, is clearly something of which he is particularly proud.

MTCT+, an inter-foundation programme, established in 2001 under the patronage of Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, has raised $60 million towards a $100 million goal for a five-year programme aimed at treating mothers with HIV/AIDS in perinatal clinics in Africa where prevention of transmission of HIV to infants is already underway.

“To see Africans properly treated and lives transformed-HIV positive mothers treated and so able to give birth to non-HIV babies-means that we’re well on our way to reducing the number of orphans and helping proper families survive”, Dr Conway explains.

“The Foundation’s money saves lives and there’s no better feeling than that. I do still wake up some mornings and think: wow, what a position to be in. Some ideas will work, some will not, but I am very optimistic. IAVI, the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, which we created, is seeking a vaccine against HIV. A promising candidate vaccine is already in second phase trials in Kenya and Uganda and is showing great promise.”

Retiring clearly isn’t going to fit comfortably into his agenda. I interviewed him during a taxi dash between two appointments-one at Imperial to discuss his latest position on the development advisory board, the other to receive an honorary doctorate from the Open University at the Royal Festival Hall.

“My wife stays hoping I retire for a couple of days a week, while I know of a colleague who operates a seven-day weekend but I’m not quite sure about that,” he adds with a smile. On moving to London later in the year, both intend to indulge their love of classical and jazz music, as well as theatre and film. He also wants to learn to enjoy London and tour the art galleries. A cottage with a garden isn’t out of the question.

“Realistically, I expect to continue to do work, particularly in relation to science, technology and development, and I’m also trying to write books, one about the Foundation, as well as one about the history of world agriculture.” Time spent on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution taught him valuable lessons about perceptions and reality in science. In recent years he has spent a considerable time trying to influence the biotechnology dialogue-a subject doubtless to be tackled in his books at some point.

 It’s also worth mentioning that he set up the College’s Centre for Environmental Technology in 1976, which he served as director, chairman, and visiting professor. Creating the first and most successful of the cross-disciplinary, multi-departmental centres, the original focus was an innovative MSc programme in Environmental Technology, beginning with 24 students and growing to over 100, plus over 50 PhD students.

“It’s been extremely successful. I remember Lord Flowers saying if it lasted five years, it would be a job well done. Thirty years on, I think it’s a great achievement. Life sciences is the science of the 21st century, there’s no doubt about that. The big issue is how you connect life sciences to the other big technologies, particularly information technology and nanotechnology.

“The name of the game is integration now and it’s being driven by the realities of the science. The more you get down to smaller and smaller levels, cellular, molecular, nano, the more things come together and have common properties and phenomena. Even if you’re dealing with crops like wheat and rice which seem so very different, at the genomic level they’re very similar. This fundamental similarity drives integration of life science with medicine, as well as life sciences with engineering of various kinds.”

London Natural History Society
Dr Conway wanted to be an entomologist and ecologist from an early age-in his teens he was on the ecological committee of the London Natural History Society, spending hours examining specimens in the Natural History Museum, and working on the ecology of bomb sites in the City of London.

“Kingston was a very traditional grammar school, which had a brillant maths teacher. I learned Latin, which provided a good logical analysis but they didn’t do biology at A level, so I went to Kingston Tech for that, before getting a scholarship to Bangor and ending up as a mathematical ecologist. I was accepted as a PhD student at Imperial, but went to Borneo instead!”

Between 1970 and 1976, he was lecturer then reader in the then department of pure and applied biology at the College. Between 1982 and 1986, he worked as chairman of Imperial’s committee on overseas students, responsible for the recruitment and welfare of nearly 1,000 students. During this period the number of overseas students rose by about 100 a year. 

Today’s students may soon get the opportunity to benefit from his expertise. “I’d like to do some teaching again, but I’m mindful of that seven-day weekend. I do enjoy getting feedback from students.”

His appointment to the development advisory board will definitely bring him back to the South Kensington campus from the beginning of 2005. “It’s an important strategy for College about how Imperial positions itself in the relationship to raising money-it’s a very competitive world these days,” he concludes. “Grant money related to developing countries is very important. If Imperial is to be among the top 10 world institutions in science and technology, it needs all the funding it can get, together with brilliant people working within it.

“Things have got better in Britain. The charities laws have changed, making it easier to give money. The clout of the government together with the entrepreneurship of the private sector and commitment of local communities means there is a special role for universities to play, as brokers or partners, in creating public, private, community partnerships.”

He may have to wait a few years before he can enjoy that cottage.

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