Tuesday, August 13, 2013

David Dickson

I was rifling through some old photographs just earlier and I found this of David Dickson the founder of Scidev.net, the science and development website, who very sadly passed away quite recently.

David gave me my first job at Nature magazine around 1998. He was my news editor and I was his UK science reporter. I sat opposite him for a few years, with this very view.

Many conversations were had over this blue dividing wall. My overriding memory of David is what a kind and thoughtful soul he was. I will miss his lovely conversations, words of wisdom and sweet smile.

I went to Budapest for the World Conference of Science in 1999 with him and Ehsan Masood--and we created a daily conference newsletter. This led him to create Scidev.net). I remember afterwards when he told me he was thinking of a new venture, he asked me what a science and development website should be called and I said, er, "Scidev?" He said "hmmmm" in that appreciative but totally non-committal way he had. I've no idea to this day whether he had already had the idea or was merely thinking it was terrible.

Anyway we have David to thank for the brilliance of Scidev.net today. And thankfully it is nothing like our conference newsletter which always seemed to be cobbled together every day on a bit of a wing and a prayer. I remember him quite vividly at the meeting in Budapest. He came alive in a way I'd not seen when he was behind his desk at Nature. He was almost child-like with excitement. He loved running around, testing his ideas with those he met at the meeting, and then rushing back to bash it all out into copy. I recall we all crammed into his hotel room, eating bad hotel food and assembling it. He was in his element.

So it is no surprise that he found his niche at Scidev.net. He found an outlet for doing good for the world with science, which was what he was all about. He worked hard to train young science journalists from all over the world in writing about science, (I had a couple of his journalists in for work experience at The Economist).

I realise now that we talked far too infrequently. But I'm glad I found the photograph because I wanted to write about David and I thought the moment had passed. I've tried to remember what, exactly, David taught me about news writing but have struggled to recall much by way of specifics. I know it must have been a great deal because to this day my strength remains in news writing. I know he threw me in at the deep end and put an enormous amount of trust in me. Which is a fundamental part of developing as a journalist, to become independent and make the correct decisions. We worked together on some difficult stories and he made sure I had the time and space to get the job done properly and was very supportive.

One silly thing does stick out in my memory, I'll never forget his advice when I was asked to write my first editorial--for the journal Nature. I was feeling more than a little nervous and told him so. David recommended that I sit on my own at home in the evening, in front of the computer, with a small glass of whisky to give me just enough courage to get the creative juices flowing. It worked. Although not frequently used, this still remains an option to this day!

There are so many things I'd like to talk to him about right now.


Many of his friends have been moved to write about him online.

  • There is a piece about him on the website he founded, here. There are some wonderful words in the comments from journalists from all over the world who worked with him
  • The Association of British Science Writers has put up a page here, with further tributes.
  • On the ABSW's newslist, science Writer Jon Turney recommended this piece about David that was published in the Westminster School magazine. 
  • And twitter feed comments here
  • Updated: SciDev.net is setting up an award for young science journalists in developing countries in memory of David. David's family are keen to have any tributes go towards starting this award and you can do so here.