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25/07/2014

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David Dickson, 1947 – 2013

David Dickson, who died suddenly at the end of July, was widely admired for his career advancing the global conversation about science and society.

Dr Jon Turney is a science and policy writer based in Bristol, UK.

David’s legacy

David Dickson, who died suddenly at the end of July, was widely admired for his career advancing the global conversation about science and society.

After his Cambridge degree, where he enlivened his mathematical studies with work on Varsity, a vacation stint as a sub-editor on a medical weekly persuaded him he could make his way as a journalist. He covered science policy for the Times Higher Education Supplement, then as Nature's Washington correspondent and Science's man in Europe, based in Paris.

He came back to Britain at the end of the 1980s so his children could complete their education here, and worked at New Scientist as news editor, and then – briefly and unhappily – as editor. He regrouped at Nature, which he rejoined as news editor in 1992. Later that decade, he worked with Nature's support to assemble the elements of a new organisation, Sci-Dev.Net, dedicated to exploiting the internet to bring information about science and technology to developing countries.

Science and well-being

SciDev.Net launched as a not for profit company in 2001, and he directed it until his retirement last year. It was, in a way, a return to the concern of his important book, Alternative Technology and The Politics of Technical Change, which appeared in the 1970s: How can one maximise the contribution of science and technology to human well-being, worldwide?

A lifelong man of the Left, he wore his politics lightly, and was refreshingly unsectarian. It influenced his choice of subjects as much as the stories he wrote, and sharpened his appreciation of the workings of power. In later years, he welcomed the advent of public understanding of science and science communication as academic and policy concerns, and the richer debate about science and its publics that ensued. But he also continued to point out that, across much of the world, a little more scientific literacy would go a long way.

Global resource

Under his leadership, SciDev.Net grew into an essential global resource. Its other main concern was developing capacity in science writing, and many budding writers benefitted from the tutelage of David and the network of regional co-ordinators he built up.

He continued to write, speak and lead workshops since his formal retirement in 2012, the same year he received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of British Science Writers. The continuing success of SciDev.Net is his lasting legacy, along with a global constellation of writers who found him an inspiring mentor, a good friend and an unfailing source of good advice.

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Lasting impression

Sue Hordijenko is Director of Programmes at the British Science Association

We at the British Science Association have been privileged to have enjoyed a long and rewarding relationship with David.

He attended the British Science Festival since the 1970s, first as a journalist and later heavily involved in organising events. He devoted many years to the Festival's General Section, Section X, leading the Section as Recorder since 2002. He served on Council as a trustee from 2008 and the Association’s Audit Committee from 2010.

The Association and I personally have greatly benefited from knowing David. Whatever I asked of him, whether it be taking part in a session at the Science Communication Conference, speaking in a debate on GM or helping wine and dine many an Association President or sponsor, he always delivered.

Wonderful paradoxes

As I sit here thinking about him, I realise that he was a man of wonderful paradoxes – a deeply analytical journalistic brain yet a wonderfully warm kind heart. An incredibly busy person yet someone who always gave you time.

Speaking at his all-too-premature funeral, David’s brother said something that made me smile. As a small boy, when David started at infants’ school, he went straight into the second year. He didn’t bother with the first year as he simply didn’t need to.

David Dickson left a lasting impression on all who had the immense pleasure of knowing him. His life has been cut short way too soon.

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Dr Jon Turney
Dr Jon Turney is a science and policy writer based in Bristol, UK. He contributes to futureearth.info and Green Futures, among other publications and blogs at unreliablefutures.wordpress.com and scienceobserved.wordpress.com
Sue Hordijenko
Sue Hordijenko is Director of Programmes at the British Science Association
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