George Brander 1948-2017

07 August 2017

On 21 June many were to learn that a wonderful friend and colleague had unexpectedly passed away. George Brander’s presence should have loomed large at the 13th International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making that day, yet sadly and unexpectedly, after a short respiratory illness, George passed away near his home in Southampton.

Refreshingly, George’s career was never a linear, predictable sequence of post and positions, but rather a wonderfully rich and constantly growing network of conversations, opportunities and inventions. That the Naturalistic Decision Making conference took place in the UK almost 25 years after George personally forged the first links between the US and UK research community is a testament to the success of his uniquely affable and affective style. 

Throughout the 38 years that George inspired, co-founded, initiated and led projects for the UK Ministry of Defence, he became, without question, the ambassador of applied psychology within the UK defence and security community. From his early days as a cognitive psychologist at the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment (ASWE), and within the Centre for Human Sciences at the then Defence Evaluation Research Agency, DERA (now DSTL), to his position as a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University (Shrivenham), and consultant ‘Psychologist in the Corner’ post-retirement, he deftly crafted an important role for human science within UK Government. There were very few departments within Whitehall where his name wasn’t known, and where his presence wasn’t met with a grateful smile and a hearty handshake. Nor, as a champion of innovative research, were there many academic departments within which people hadn’t worked with him, been supported by him, or found themselves returning to research because of him. Universities, research organisations and government departments in the UK as well as the US, Canada and Australia all benefited from his uniquely collegiate approach to research, relationship building and problem solving.

George was the don of epistemic disobedience, a characteristic that leaves many new human science projects, departments and professions going strong, some of which intend to honor him by establishing scholarships and funds in recognition of the importance his role played. But it is perhaps as equally befitting that these efforts to remember him reflect his greatest attribute, as friend, mentor and champion. Over the years George lent his professional expertise as much to senior military personnel as he did to young graduates looking for their first opportunities to work in the real-world. He made no distinction between rank or discipline; interns were treated with as much deference as Air-Vice Marshalls, and he brought anthropologists, analysts, economists, computer scientists and psychologists together, confident in the knowledge that not only was the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but that it was always more fun and rewarding to operate in the margins where new interests and ideas emerged.  

His ability to bring ideas and people together marked an enviable interpersonal influence and ability to network that was the hallmark of both his professional and personal life. For that reason it’s hard to distinguish between the two. He would take to the water to fulfil his love of sailing as much to decompress as he would to mentally explore a new curiosity. He would be as content talking about Social Network Analysis or cyber research at a wedding breakfast or in soft-play with his grandchildren as much as he would at the bar or on the podium at a conference.

I do not think it is hyperbole to say that for those of us who had the honour to work with him, we experienced both a significant professional revolution of human science within defence and security, whilst also learning, first hand, the true power and importance of social relationships. There is not a boat, bar, coffee shop, or conference that will not feel the loss of such a great psychologist and friend as we had in George Brander. But his network lives on, and in that we have learned that great things continue.

Adam Joinson and Susie Ballentyne

Quotes from friends and colleagues: 

“George was instrumental in bringing Gary Klein to the UK to present to a wide Ministry of Defence audience. It transformed the way we think about military decision making.”

“He was the most self-deprecating person I have known but I believe that he was justifiably proud of what he achieved, both directly and indirectly through others.”

“I’m not sure how such a don and godfather can keep such a childlike spirit, nor how someone who scoffed at the constraints of government nevertheless can be so successful improving what it did.”

“Curious George, curious about people and the things we can do in this world.”

“What should have been a quick chat about statistical sampling turned into a three-hour chat about George… There were tears of happiness that we had the pleasure of having George in our lives professionally and socially, mixed with immense sadness that he no longer with us.”

“He was both a leader, and a wonderful first follower.”

“He was the archetypal boundary spanner – not only among behavioural scientists but across disciplines, borders and interests.”

“[George] You believed in me when I was unsure, mentored me when I needed guidance, and kept my feet on the ground when I most needed it.”

“He broke Robin Dunbar’s rule that humans can only maintain a network of 150 people.”