Ian Gibson, who has died aged 82 of pancreatic cancer, had a considerable reputation as a cancer researcher before seeking a political career in order to try to advance the cause of science in public life. He was elected for the first time in 1997, aged 58, as the Labour MP for Norwich North and spent the ensuing 12 years in an energetic pursuit of this case, while also propounding his strongly held convictions on a wide range of issues about health and education.
He was a popular, charismatic man who won the influential chairmanship of the Commons select committee on science and technology in 2001, despite the opposition of his own party whips.
Had he not been an intractable individualist, his political career might possibly have progressed, but his primary loyalty was always to his own principles, which is never a recipe for success in politics. He put the interests of science and of the people of Norwich some way above those of the Labour party; a stance that brought him only respect.
As a scientist for 32 years at the University of East Anglia, where he had been dean of the school of biological sciences immediately before election to Westminster, Gibson did bring a degree of expertise to political debate on scientific issues. He was one of the first MPs to insist there was medical evidence to support the existence of Gulf war syndrome, the condition suffered by military troops who had served in the Middle East in the first Gulf war in 1991.
He also played a small but dramatic personal part in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003. Three years later he revealed that, before the invasion of Iraq, he had been secretly flown by British security personnel to an unknown destination he believed to have been in the Middle East in order to meet a former student of his at UEA.
Gibson had supervised the PhD of Rihab Taha, a biochemist who studied plant toxins in Norwich between 1980 and 1984, before heading the Iraqi research and development programme on biological and chemical weapons. Gibson was instructed to ask her if Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which she denied. Taha was later dubbed “Dr Germ” when named in what became known as the “dodgy dossier”.
Gibson opposed the subsequent Iraq war. He had first voted against Tony Blair’s government – on benefit cuts – within months of being elected, and by this time had an established record as an uncompromising leftwing rebel. It made for a sometimes difficult relationship with Charles Clarke, his fellow Labour MP for the adjoining constituency of Norwich South, notably when Gibson opposed the £3,000 university top-up fees introduced by Clarke as education secretary.
But he was a clever, funny man with a common touch. He was a keen amateur footballer, a former left-back and captain of Wymondham Town FC, near Norwich, and from 1999 to 2005 he was coach of the parliamentary football squad. He was also a season ticketholder for Norwich City and in 1994, after Bryan Gunn, the former Norwich goalkeeper, lost his two-year-old daughter to leukaemia, Gibson established the Francesca Gunn laboratory at UEA, funded by the footballer to find new diagnostic techniques and treatment for childhood leukaemia.
His politics were forged by a sense of injustice on behalf of the underdog and the underpaid. This had led him first to the trade union movement to achieve better conditions for technicians at UEA, where he had joined the academic staff in 1965. He became an executive member of what was then ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, now part of Unite) and after flirting with International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party, in 1983 he joined the Labour party. He fought Norwich North unsuccessfully in the 1992 general election.
Gibson’s political career was ended by the parliamentary expenses scandal. He had claimed expenses for a flat he was using in London, but where his daughter was living rent free, and which he had reportedly sold to her at half its market value.
Labour’s national executive committee, acting as what was termed a “kangaroo court” by Norwich North constituency, barred Gibson from standing at a future election. He stood down immediately as the “honourable thing”, causing a byelection in 2009 which was won by the Conservative candidate, Chloe Smith, now minister of state in the Cabinet Office.
He returned to a busy academic life as a visiting lecturer and also worked as a journalist for the Norwich Evening News until 2014.
Born in Dumfries, Ian was the son of William, a clerk, and his wife, Winifred (nee Kerr). He was educated at Dumfries academy and the University of Edinburgh, where he was awarded a BSc and a PhD in genetics. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University and at the University of Washington before joining UEA.
Appointed senior biology lecturer in 1971, he became dean in 1991. He was made an honorary professor in 2003 and given an honorary doctorate by the university in 2011. An honorary fellow of the British Science Association and the Wellcome Trust, he won the Royal Society of Chemistry Parliamentary award in 2004 and that year was also named Backbencher of the Year by the House magazine.
In 1977, Ian Gibson married Elizabeth Lubbock, a nurse who became a sister at West Norwich hospital. He is survived by her and their daughter Helen, and by his daughter, Dominique, from his first marriage to Verity, a social worker. He was predeceased by Ruth, a second daughter from his first marriage.