Communication is key to informed public participation

Delegates at the symposium on Science Communication and Scientific Policy Making Copyright: SciDev.Net/Hepeng Jia

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The simple communication of key scientific information to the public needs to be improved if sustainable development is to be a realistic goal.

Effective science communication is crucial to informed and participatory policymaking, especially in developing countries. The need is becoming increasingly urgent as science accelerates towards greater specialisation and complexity, even in the developing world.

The speed of this evolution has overtaken the traditional model, under which science was not normally communicated to the public until research results had become well established.

To address these issues, a symposium — ‘Science Communication and Scientific Policy Making’, was held in Beijing last month, organised by SciDev.Net and its local partners with funding from the British Embassy in Beijing.

The consensus was that these could not be handled simply by developing science communication within academic circles: science must move into the public domain as it contributes more and more to a range of policies that affect the people.

Many policy areas depend on the spread of reliable scientific knowledge. For example, regulations for building a new chemical plant or a maglev train, decisions on the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops, or boosting environmental protection and energy saving.

The problem is already familiar in developed countries. For example, Fiona Fox, director of the London-based Science Media Centre, told the symposium that British scientists responded inadequately to public questioning on issues such as ‘mad cow’ disease and GM crops — with the result that inaccuracies and hearsay became commonplace.

Public hearings

The situation in rapidly developing countries such as China could be more complicated. There is a growing public desire to participate in, if not control, policies that impact on people’s lives. But this has not been accompanied by a willingness on the part of the government to reveal information, or by scientists to communicate the relevant science in an understandable way.

One remedy was proposed at the symposium by Li Daguang, from the Science Communication Centre of the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who suggested that China should experiment with public hearings on policymaking related to scientific issues.

As an example of the potential — and current limitations — of this approach, Li pointed to recent public protests by residents against a potentially polluting chemical plant, originally planned for a suburb of the coastal city of Xiamen, southeast China.

The local government agreed to hold a public hearing. But at the hearing, environmental experts commissioned by the government spoke entirely in technical jargon, arguing that the plant would be safe, but using language that few in the audience would have been able to understand.

Eventually the plant was suspended as a result of strong public pressure. But, as Li pointed out, the procedure was far from satisfactory.

Dominant model

Some other speakers at the symposium pointed out that the communicators should themselves be powerful enough to decide whether to involve the public in the process.

In a speech outlining the theory of science communication, Liu Bing of Tsinghua University argued that the dominant model encourages public participation in science development. It has been used by science communicators worldwide to develop strategies for involving the public in decisions relating to science progress.

According to Li, Chinese society seems ready to adopt this model. In a survey conducted in Jiangsu and Yunnan provinces in China earlier this year, Li found that people would be keen to participate in any public hearing on an important local science-related project.

But it also became clear from the symposium that before science communication can become effective in promoting informed public participation in policymaking, many changes are needed — including willingness by government officials to involve the public in science-related issues.

Another would be to revise the approach to science communication and popularisation. At present, this is mainly handled by the government, which means it is sanctioned for public consumption by top officials and leading experts.

But Zhu Xiaomin, a researcher at the Institute of Policy and Management of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the symposium that priorities set by leaders are sometimes inconsistent with the requirements of the grassroots community.

In Beijing’s rural suburbs, for example, science communicators found that they had to pay farmers to participate in lectures on science because the farmers felt they would be wasting time they could be using to make money.

Practical points

The general view of the symposium was that science communication should be driven by events and demand. When the public need to be involved in science-related policies, decision-makers (or the experts behind them) should inform the public about the scientific aspects — such as potential pollution — in straightforward terms.

Appropriate procedures should also be observed at public hearings on science-related issues. A wide selection from the public should be represented at such hearings, and delegates should be allowed time to express their reasonable concerns. In the Xiamen chemical-plant case, for example, 100 delegates were chosen, but few were given time to speak and their presentations were each limited to five minutes.

Debates should avoid scientific jargon without sacrificing scientific content. A willingness to base suggestions and conclusions on scientific evidence — interpreted in a comprehensible way — should be adopted from the start.

In the case of GM crops, for example, reasonable public concerns should not be used to exaggerate their unproven health risk or to undermine the established understanding of their safety.

Involving the public in decision-making on scientific issues is not easy. But it is an essential task for science communicators in the developing world, whose efforts will guide the use of science and technology in sustainable development.

Jia Hepeng

China coordinator, SciDev.Net