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"Science literacy" is generally believed to be a good thing. In a world infused with science and technology, it seems obvious that it is desirable that more people understand scientific research and how it can be used to improve life. In developing countries, modern science and technology offer hope for addressing the pressing needs of improved nutrition, public health, safety, and shelter.

But often when something seems obvious, it's a good idea to look more closely. In December 2002, a two-day workshop in Cape Town, South Africa, found that new definitions of science literacy are needed to ensure that public communication of science and technology addresses the real needs of people and societies in the developing world.

The workshop "Achieving public understanding of research in developing countries" was part of the 7th conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology. It brought together more than 50 individuals from 16 countries and six continents — journalists, scientists, museum and science centre staff, policy analysts, community outreach co-ordinators, and academic researchers.

We held a common belief that the "public understanding of research" — understanding the scientific process and the results of cutting edge work — is essential for any modern society, whether in the North or South. What we didn't know was whether our vision of what makes a good public understanding programme in developed countries had any relevance in the developing world.

Discussions in this field often focus on three kinds of science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. They assume that, once essential human needs have been met, the ability to make personal or policy decisions about science-based issues essentially revolves around being able to use complex information, and is not constrained by political or economic factors.

In the developed world, debates about topics such as nuclear power or genetically modified foods take it for granted that access to energy or nutritious meals is not at stake, and that individuals are free to make meaningful choices. Moreover, developed-world scientists take as a given that science is as fundamental a part of modern culture as music or art. Even the definition of science in the developed world often seems unproblematic: science is the product of cutting-edge research conducted by methods and techniques that have emerged from Europe since the 17th century.

But for much of the developing world, public understanding of research is about much more basic issues: providing clean water for drinking and cooking, learning the essential link between unprotected sexual intercourse and HIV infection, and so on. In this developing-world context, it is not clear that museum exhibits about electricity or magazine articles about in-vitro fertilisation are relevant in addressing the needs of most of the population.

To give just one example, last year during a class on science journalism in Johannesburg, South Africa, a student from a rural district asked me how to talk about HIV infection. "In my community, it is taboo to talk about sex," he said. "In our language, I cannot even use the words for 'penis' and 'vagina'. How can I explain how to avoid HIV infection when I don't even have words for explaining the acts that lead to infection?"

Public understanding of science in his community is not about the latest immunological results, nor about acquiring greater political power, or improved use of scientific instruments; it is about addressing fundamental barriers to scientific information. These barriers are not caused by ignorance or hostility, but by the core conditions of the developing world — local languages, poverty, lack of public health, lack of economic infrastructure and lack of education.

At the workshop in Cape Town, we found that we need to redefine our terms of reference. The developed world has the luxury of detached interest in reliable knowledge about the natural world. In contrast, public understanding in the developing world must focus on knowledge upon which one can act immediately.

Some of our more practical conclusions may be familiar: create databases of successful projects and opportunities for training, improve access to web-based materials (such as those on SciDev.Net), and provide ongoing support to people and projects. Some reinforced the continuing need to evaluate the effectiveness of particular programmes and to recognise that there is no one "best" practice, as all projects need to be adapted and used in particular local contexts.

But our more far-reaching conclusions forced us to redefine science literacy itself. Instead of "practical" science literacy, Nalaka Gunawardene, a veteran science and environment journalist from Sri Lanka, talked about defining public understanding as "the minimum knowledge to make life better". He advocated thinking in terms of survival: of preventing dehydration of babies, of campaigning for better road safety, of promoting the safe use of pesticides.

Similarly, "civic" science literacy looks different in the developing world. Carlos Setti, a Brazilian science writer, reminded us of the gaps between rich and poor in developing countries and urged us to always put public understanding programmes "at the service of overcoming social and regional inequalities" — a reminder that choices about how to allocate scientific and technological resources are not politically neutral.

But in the end we still concluded that research — including open and honest appraisal of the reliable knowledge embodied by indigenous systems — offers tools of great value to the developing world. And we continued to believe in the value of public understanding of research for local culture, and thus in the need to convey the excitement of research, especially to children. After all, recruiting the next generation of scientists is as critical, perhaps more critical, to the culture of the developing world than to the developed world.

Bruce V. Lewenstein is associate professor of science communication at Cornell University, editor of the journal Public Understanding of Science, and webmaster for the International Network on Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

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