Sir Alec Cairncross, Chancellor of Glasgow University 1972-1996; born February 11, 1911, died October 21, 1998

SIR Alec Cairncross, who has died at the age of 87, was above all a practical economist who followed his own precept that thinking should be directed ultimately towards action. His academic career was distinguished, culminating in a spell as Master of St Peter's College, Oxford, but it is for his work outside the mainstream of academic life that he will be most widely remembered.

He was among the most highly regarded Government economic advisers of his time and an outstanding figure in economic management. Glasgow University, of which he was a graduate, a former Professor of Applied Economics, and Chancellor, played a recurring role in a career of rich diversity.

The remarkable range of his work and variety of his postings ensure that he will be remembered at centres of learning and government offices in many parts of the world. He combined his academic career with work for international organisations such as the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation. He had an influence on the post-war reconstruction of the German economy, and in the 1950s had a temporary post with the World Bank - an appointment made in recognition of the fact that many underdeveloped nations were as much in need of expert administrators as of capital aid.

Alexander Kirkland Cairncross was born in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, in 1911. He attended Hamilton Academy before going on to Glasgow University, where he attended his first political economy class in 1930. He soon made an impression on the late and renowned Professor Alec Macfie, who remarked to a colleague that they had at least one intelligent pupil - ''for I can tell by his sceptical smile and his bright eye''. The remark was quoted in 1966 when he received an honorary degree from his old university.

From Glasgow he went to Cambridge University, where he did pioneering research on home and foreign investment and became a university lecturer.

At Trinity College in 1934-35 he shared rooms - directly above Anthony Blunt's - with his younger brother John, who in 1979 was to confess to having as a Foreign Office official passed secret information to a Soviet agent.

As the two youngest of a family of eight children they had been close as boys but Sir Alec expressed astonishment that his brother, a brilliant linguist, had been a member of the Cambridge Communist cell.

It was in the 1940s that his practical and pragmatic approach to economics was first translated into Government service. During the war he became director of programmes at the Ministry of Aircraft production, describing his work as ''the daily combat with chaos that was dignified by the title of 'planning' ''. After the war he continued to influence events, first as economic adviser to the Board of Trade, then as head of the intelligence division of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation. He was one of the authors of the report on Germany which inspired measures to create an orderly monetary system and thus helped to pave the way for the German economic miracle.

His return to Glasgow University in 1950 marked the beginning of a decade spent mainly in academic life, with the exception of a temporary World Bank post. But as the university's first Professor of Applied Economics he continued to have a practical influence on the world around him. As well as setting up the university's pioneering centre of social and economic research, he was a member of the Crofting Commission, he established management training in Scotland, and in his research as well as his public work devoted much attention to Scotland's economic problems.

One of his students, who was later a City Editor of this newspaper, once recalled: ''I found him an imposing and, to tell the truth, a rather frightening figure. He was a man with a phenomenal memory who even then seemed to be playing an actual part in the real world of Government policy - something which set him apart from most of my other tutors.''

His years as a civil servant had turned him, according to one observer, from a brilliant academic economist to a crisp executive man of the world, and he was attracted to Government service and to the challenge of putting theory into practice.

In 1961, when he became economic adviser to Selwyn Lloyd, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Macmillan Government, he remarked that probably no other job could have drawn him South again. Taking up his appointment at one of the most critical moments in the post-war British economy, he advised the Chancellor on, among other things, the possible effects of wage claims. The appointment was not renewed when the Wilson Government came to power, but the economic section of the Treasury was set up under him in 1964 and he remained its head until his career pendulum swung back towards academic life with his election as Master of St Peter's College, Oxford, in 1969.

It was after the death of Lord Boyd Orr that he was elected Chancellor of Glasgow University in 1972 at the age of 60, his defeated rivals in the postal ballot including Lord Macleod of Fuinary and Christopher Grieve (the poet Hugh MacDiarmid). Apparently he had not expected to come top of the poll. ''I would not have forecast it but then again I am not a very good forecaster,'' he remarked.

At his installation he argued for closer links between universities and productive industry and suggested that the former would gain from closer contact with concrete problems in the private and public sectors of the economy.

''Thinking is by no means confined to universities,'' he said. ''Indeed it is often far more difficult in a university than where the action is, particularly if the emphasis is on problem-solving rather than abstract reflection.'' Equally, though, he believed that business would increasingly benefit from an analytical approach.

As an economic adviser to Government he had always believed that his function was, as he once put it, to check silly actions rather than to try to select the right course. He must have felt frustrated at his powerlessness to do this two decades later in the Thatcher era. During the recession of the early eighties he was a strong critic of the Government, once summing up its policies as consisting mostly of sins of omission and claiming that it had maintained a tight monetary policy long after it was appropriate.

Monetary policy, he believed, was in itself a highly unsatisfactory method of controlling an industrial economy - a case that he had earlier argued as a highly influential member of the Radcliffe committee on monetary policy in 1959. As a young lecturer at Cambridge he had known and admired Keynes, and in the 1980s regretted that the fallacies he had cut down were flourishing half a century later. Keynes, he remarked, had clearly foreseen the danger of inflation in a fully-employed economy but could be forgiven for thinking that in 40 years we should have arrived at some solution of so obvious a problem.

Sir Alec - he was knighted in 1967 - has been described as modest, cautious, shrewd, and forthright; also as brisk, affable and tireless.

As the author of numerous publications ,he described writing as his recreation but also liked to take his camera with him on his travels and had a taste for chamber music and folk music (not necessarily Scottish).