Obituary: David Dickson (1947–2013)

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David Dickson, founding director of SciDev.Net and inspirational figure in the science journalism and global development communities, died from a sudden heart attack on 31 July 2013.

As tributes continue to arrive here at SciDev.Net, we would like to share these three personal reflections:

Geoffrey Oldham, Former chair and founding Trustee

I got to know David well during the seven years when I chaired the SciDev.Net Governing Board at the birth of the organisation. During this time I was able to witness his many strengths regarding the design of SciDev.Net, his success at fundraising to make it possible to turn the idea into reality, and his ability to find ways of involving the developing world in its design and implementation.
David was a brilliant science journalist and received many accolades which recognised this brilliance. But he was also someone one who understood the needs of policy makers in the developing countries and found ways for SciDev.net to cater for these needs through its dossiers and policy briefs and other ways. Mainly through David’s efforts SciDev.Net is now recognised throughout the world as the leading source of information about science, technology, and innovation for development.
His untimely death robs us all of his many talents just at a time when the world needs them the most. Fortunately he has mentored many younger journalists who will hopefully continue his good work.

Andrew Bennett, chair of Trustees, SciDev.Net

David believed passionately in the importance of evidence-based policy and decision-making in development. He was a strong advocate of the need to improve access to science, and devoted his whole career to quality journalism and to helping others to report science objectively, using language that was readily understandable.

After a long and distinguished career as a science journalist and editor at Nature, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Science and the New Scientist, David identified the need for SciDev.Net — a web-based, open source of objective information on advances and uses of science in development. Without David's vision and determination, there would be no SciDev.Net.

As founder and first director for over ten years, David attracted strong donor support and steered the development of SciDev.Net to a position where it has become a highly regarded source of scientific information for development on a wide range of topics. David built a network of talented science journalists around the world.

SciDev.Net provides a unique and valuable bridge between science and the development community.

Even in retirement, David continued to support SciDev.Net by writing a regular column and by mentoring SciDev.Net's interns.

David was an accomplished editor and mentor. He was dedicated and sincere. He made a huge contribution and will be missed greatly by his colleagues and friends.

As chair of the Board I developed a great admiration and respect for David's commitment, integrity and all that he had achieved. Even when he decided to step down as director, he always put the interests of SciDev.Net first — it is his legacy to the world of science for development, for which we should all be grateful.

Luisa Massarani — Regional Coordinator, Latin America

David was a man with a single idea. I mean, a huge and complex single idea —  he wanted to improve communication about science in the developing world by bringing together "science and development".

I met him for the first time when he had just started to have some ideas in his mind. He gave a talk at the conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST), held in February 2001 in Geneva, Switzerland. In his talk, he supported the idea of having a freely accessible website with reliable news on science and development in the developing world.

He argued that there was a need to empower both individuals and communities in ways that would increase the impact of science and technology on sustainable development, and that would ultimately lead to a reduction of poverty.

In his talk in Geneva, he also highlighted that he tested his ideas in a pilot experience linked to the World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century: a New Commitment, held from 26 June to 1 July 1999 in Budapest, Hungary, by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), in cooperation with other partners.

The funny thing is, that during his speech, he mentioned that the pilot experience worked particularly well in Brazil and he would like very much to know a Brazilian science journalist. Later that day, I approached him, with my colleague Monica Macedo, and we said: "We are Brazilian science journalists". We exchanged cards. And we started keeping in touch at a distance. This gave me the opportunity to follow the whole the idea from its inception.

By then, David was the news editor at Nature, with a long and robust trajectory in science communication.

During the whole of 2001, he followed a 'via cruces' (way of the cross), applying for funds and persuading key organisations and stakeholders that it was a good idea. In December 2001, the baby was ready to be born: SciDev.Net was launched, with a unique and innovative philosophy of providing reliable information and views on science and development in the developing world. Training was also an important part of the philosophy.

In the very first year, he decided to create regional gateways — which later became a hallmark for SciDev.Net. The first one was Africa — a region that his eyes were always looking at. He very quickly came to realise that to empower the regions and make SciDev.Net more relevant and reliable, it was key to involve people from the regions themselves.

Then, it was our turn — that is, Latin America. David had a philosophy of trusting in people and giving an opportunity to those who wanted to get on board with him while, at the same time, trying as far as possible to reduce risks. Always keeping me around and giving me opportunities to understand my work better, he contacted several people to check my background. Finally, he made up his mind and invited me to coordinate the Latin American gateway, launched at the beginning of 2003.

Working with him was always inspiring. It involved being trained, in practice, in his views on science and development. He increasingly gave us freedom to build the editorial personality of the region, in his (very nice) way of participating in everything.

A symbolic thing David succeeded in doing was to put both the journals Science and Nature, fierce competitors, together on the website. It was an expression that SciDev.Net was beyond the borders of internal disputes. He made available, for free, papers for scientists in the developing world, who couldn't afford to read the two 'Bibles' of science. But he did something else too — he started pushing for these two journals to become interested in looking at science from other lands.

As a result, SciDev.Net very quickly consolidated itself as a powerful force, with several publications making science visible from our countries. He also developed a strong network of people who were inspired by the vision of science for development and were able to expand the project worldwide.

In my view, by empowering the developing world and allowing science information to circulate freely around the globe, he changed the geopolitics of science communication.

David left the world far too early, but his ideas will, I am sure, continue to shape the world for years to come.

T V Padma – Regional Coordinator, South Asia

A visionary and an idealist, David had long recognised the ground realities of science journalism in developing countries, which ranged from a lack of access to scientists and information, to a lack of access to training, mentors and role models in the field. He also recognised something more fundamental: global science journalism — and its priorities and perspectives — tend to be heavily dominated and influenced by reporters based primarily in the West. It was this imbalance in coverage that David sought to correct when he founded SciDev.Net. 

His initial presentations, as he introduced his vision of SciDev.Net in developing countries, dwelled on the role and responsibility of science journalism. "The key task of science communication is to empower individuals to participate in the dialogue between science, technology and society," he said. 

He expanded further on the critical role of science communication in development, in later years, arguing that "science, technology and innovation are essential to address the triple helix of development, namely meeting the challenges of: achieving economic growth, reducing poverty, and enabling environmental sustainability".

Communication in general, and research/science communication in particular, represents the critical fourth strand to the development helix, he said. 

David's interest in developing countries did not start overnight. Even as Nature's news editor, he showed a keen interest in developing countries.

Killugudi Jayaraman, Nature's contributing correspondent in New Delhi, and an advisor for SciDev.Net South Asia, recalls: "He was keen to know about scientific developments in Indian labs and also policy matters affecting the science community and controversial issues. I remember when he was on a visit to New Delhi he asked me to arrange meetings with several officials in different scientific agencies. He was always helpful with ideas and suggestions for stories."

The late Christina Scott, SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa news editor, who was based in Cape Town, once remarked to me how she was taken aback when David corresponded with her about the Durban AIDS conference in 2000, which saw the battle between African countries seeking their rights for cheaper generics from India, and multinational drugs companies.

The early years were not easy. Back in the early 2000s, and as late as 2005 when I joined SciDev.Net South Asia, there was still scepticism of the credibility of web-based information in many countries, including India. David's stature as an ex-staffer with Nature, Science and the New Scientist, as well the support from Nature, Science and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences), helped win over the initial sceptics.  

But this coming-of-age would not have been possible had SciDev.Net, under David's guidance, not maintained high standards of science journalism to set up brand SciDev.Net. David did not believe in sloppy or short-cut methods to science journalism. Nor did he believe in sacrificing editorial quality and independence. He made shrewd observations, challenged scientists' assertions, and quizzed relentlessly, opening up new lines of thought on a complex scientific debate. He also provided useful reading material as background information. When I wrote a report for SciDev.Net, I learned so much more on a subject automatically.

He sometimes took strong positions on certain topics — open access, obviously, but also others such as open source drug discovery, the regulation of contentious emerging technologies, and the patenting of public-funded university research. 

What is little-known about David is that his two books – Politics of Alternative Technology and New Politics of Science – adorn libraries of several policy research institutes in India, as well as the political science department's library at the University of Delhi.

Of all the places, at a private lunch hosted by a noted Gandhian environmentalist's family, I bumped into a professor of political science. When she realised that I worked at SciDev.Net, whose editor was David Dickson, she introduced me simply to a couple of her acquaintances as "she works with David Dickson who wrote those books on politics of science". My and SciDev.Net's name did not seem to matter.  When I narrated it to David, he characteristically quipped: "Looks like my books are read more in India than here [in the United Kingdom]."

He was gentle and kind in his dealings with developing country science journalists — which is why the Facebook updates of many are mourning him, describing him as a valued mentor and teacher. Others, too, sensed this gentleness. MS Swaminathan, father of India's 'Green Revolution', once remarked to me: "More than anything else, David is very fine human being". 

Raghunath Mashelkar, a former trustee and former director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, recalled: "David was a wonderful human being, upright and honest beyond belief". That's how the South Asian scientific community often referred to him — as a gentleman and a brilliant journalist. 

To see an archive of David's work for SciDev.Net from the past year, click here.

To see the initial announcement and ongoing comments, click here.