'Somehow, I knew I'd see you again, you bastard'

June 27, 2003

David King and Ian Gibson were rival trade union activists at UEA in the 1970s. Thirty years on, they face each other again, this time fighting for British science. Steve Farrar reports

Ian Gibson had expected his boss to be angry - signing that letter complaining about a senior academic photographing protesters was a provocative act. But even he was stunned when the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia announced that he wanted the firebrand Scottish lecturer in genetics and 18 of his colleagues expelled. What had started as a student sit-in no different from the many others that swept British campuses in the early 1970s had turned into a nasty confrontation.

Among the first to offer Gibson support was David King, a South African chemist and fellow trade union activist. The two young men had much in common. Although the tall, athletic Gibson was as confrontational as the mild-mannered King was measured and conciliatory, both were innovative scientists, quick-witted, ambitious and driven to get things done. But as branch secretaries of rival trade unions, they often flatly disagreed about how to best to represent UEA's staff. Nevertheless, both were wholly dedicated to the cause. Solidarity was taken for granted.

King recalls that the vice-chancellor backed down because his position was untenable - "it was inevitable that the threat would be withdrawn". Gibson, however, exclaims that "Dave having a nice sherry with the v-c" did not win the fight. It was a walkout organised by his union - "going to fight it on the picket line, tooth and nail" - that did the trick. Either way, the Norwich Nineteen survived.

Thirty years on, the struggle continues. But Gibson and King are fighting for British science not workers' rights. King - now Sir David - is chief scientific adviser to the prime minister and head of the government's Office of Science and Technology. Gibson - now Labour MP for Norwich North - is chairman of the House of Commons select committee for science and technology. In many ways, they use tactics honed in the trade union battles fought at UEA to achieve their new goals. King works tirelessly behind the scenes, persuading and encouraging to get the best deal for science. Gibson prefers to grill the great and good before the so-called "committee from hell".

King's experience of confronting authority had been an unhappy one. He arrived in the UK in 1963, having left the University of Wi****ersrand with his PhD thesis barely completed. Three months earlier, South African special branch officers had interrogated King just inside an open window on the 12th floor of their notorious Johannesburg offices. He was scared.

People were known to "jump" from the building. The officers leafed through letters the student had sent to the newspapers criticising the apartheid system. "In essence, I was accused of being a communist," King recalls. He decided to abandon his homeland.

After some time at Imperial College London, -year-old King made his way to Norwich to help build a new university. He was quickly appointed to UEA's senate, and he also became branch secretary of the Association of University Teachers. He was on good terms with the students, sympathising with their opposition to the Vietnam war. During one sit-in, King even gave seminars on "teaching science in a society in which you care about what science produces". Nevertheless, he maintained a friendly relationship with the vice-chancellor. King, it seems, was always able to remain on good terms with all parties.

Gibson's impact on UEA was rather different. In 1968, after several years in the US, he took up a lectureship in genetics "in a fit of idealism".

That idealism still surges through his veins. Gibson's love of genetics was nurtured at Edinburgh University by the same lecturers who awakened his social conscience, inspiring him to think about the effects of science on the world outside the laboratory. Yet as a student, he steered clear of active politics. Gibson's passion was football. Between 1960 and 1962, the young scientist played centre-half for three Scottish clubs and had a trial for Manchester United before deciding to commit himself to science.

Gibson proved an engaging but outspoken member of staff. He joined marches and pickets, barracked prime minister Harold Wilson over the Vietnam war and, in 1972, joined the Trotskyite International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party. Snubbing the AUT for not affiliating to the Trades Union Congress, Gibson instead joined the technicians union, the ASTMS. Once elected branch secretary, he set about recruiting members in direct competition with King.

Gibson was suspicious of most academics: "I thought they were pretty self-centred and not collective." He was likewise scathing about science students: "They were never part of the revolt, always stuck in the labs."

One exception was a brilliant Norwich-born biology student called Paul Nurse. Three decades before he won his Nobel prize, Nurse had been radicalised by the events of 1968. Two years before moving to UEA, he gave seminars on science and society during an occupation at Birmingham University. "It was a really heady time and enormously important to my development," he says. Though less active at UEA, he still found time to pursue politics off campus.

Nurse recalls Gibson as something of a maverick and iconoclast. "Not everybody in the faculty approved of him expressing his views," he says. "But I had lots of discussions with him. It was remarkable to hear a figure of the 'establishment' speaking about the sorts of things you expect to hear from students." Nurse sympathised with but was not a member of the International Socialists, standing beside Gibson selling the party newspaper, Socialist Worker , in Norwich streets or outside factory gates. "We did well if we sold five copies," Nurse says. Although his political involvement fell away as his scientific career took off, Nurse, like King and Gibson, turned his radical outlook into a passion for exploring science's impact on society. He currently chairs the Royal Society committee that examines such matters.

Fortunately for Gibson, it was easier to recruit ASTMS members in 1970s Norwich than it was to sell Socialist Worker . He recalls a surge during the Norwich Nineteen campaign that included some poached from King's AUT. King remembers things a little differently. "I was determined to recruit more members than Ian," he says. "I think I did." But he confesses that most his friends switched to the ASTMS. All the time, however, a healthy respect grew between the two men. "It was all good humoured. I don't think we ever really fell out," King says. "Dave and me were perfect union negotiators - good cop, bad cop," Gibson grins.

King rose through AUT ranks, helped get the union affiliated to the TUC and, as national pay negotiator, won the biggest annual salary increase ever - 18 per cent. "It's my claim to fame, and Ian can't trump it," he says, although he admits that inflation was running at about 16 per cent at the time. In 1975, King became AUT president, but his involvement was already waning as he concentrated more on his research.

Gibson, meanwhile, was suffering an academic "lean period" due to his commitment to the International Socialists. Although elected to the ASTMS executive, he describes himself as a "thorn in the side of the union", and he was expelled for attacking union president Clive Jenkins in Socialist Worker . In 1979, Gibson quit the Socialist Workers Party, disillusioned with its line, and joined instead Labour. He also threw himself back into his research.

By 1990, Gibson was dean of science at UEA, and he helped raise the department's research assessment exercise rating from a 4 to a 5. To his surprise, he also won Labour's nomination to stand as a parliamentary candidate in the 1992 election, during which he came agonisingly close to taking Norwich North from the Conservatives. In the 1997 Labour landslide, Gibson became an MP. He soon struck up a rather unlikely friendship with Charles Clarke, MP for Norwich South and the current education minister.

The two men have adjacent season tickets at Norwich City and often argue politics in the bar before the game.

Some time in 2000, Gibson ran into his old adversary at a Westminster party. "I knew I'd see you again, you bastard," King remarked. The chemist had been enjoying a highly successful career as an academic as head of Cambridge University's top-ranked chemistry department. Soon after their reunion, King was named the government's new chief scientific adviser. The following year, Gibson took the chair of the House of Commons select committee that was tasked with scrutinising King's work.

Neither was given an easy ride. King had no sooner moved into his new office than the foot-and-mouth epidemic broke out. But his competent handling of the crisis won him great respect in the government. "As a result of that, the OST has become a key player in the government. While the foot-and-mouth epidemic was a disaster for the country, it was the best thing that could have happened to me," he reflects. His relationship with Tony Blair is close. He believes the prime minister has a firm faith in science as well as "a very rational, almost reductionist approach".

Meanwhile, Gibson had to fight to become committee chairman against opposition from sceptical Labour Party whips. But he succeeded with support from his fellow MPs. He admits: "I get very frustrated - if I see what can be done I want to get it done." The result has been a welter of controversial and high-profile investigations. "The work we've done in the past year has really captured the imagination of the scientific community - and we're not finished yet," he says.

Despite appearing in front of the dreaded committee more than once (as has Nurse), King admires his former adversary's achievements. "Ian is very effective, ruffling feathers and doing exactly what a select committee chairman ought to do," he says. "His heart is in it in exactly the same way mine is. We both want to see more and better science in the UK."

Gibson returns the compliment: "Dave King and I are very friendly, argumentative but determined to make sure science and technology moves on."

But although King is quietly confident about the future, Gibson complains that his committee's work is being held back. In particular, he wants more support to scrutinise issues. "I have to use my own researcher, while Dave King has a team of 35 people in the OST," he moans. "How am I supposed to compete with him?"

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