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[BEIJING] In a first for China, the central government will invest 50 million yuan (US$6.25 million) this year in efforts to popularise science in rural areas.

The funding was announced last week (12 July) at the 2006 Beijing Forum for Science Popularisation.

Ju Yunfeng, director of the Chinese Institute of Science Popularization Research, told the forum that there was little or no access to scientific information in more than half of rural China.

It is the first time that the central government has earmarked funds specifically for rural science literacy, says Zhou Feng, a finance official at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).

Previously, funding for these activities represented a small part of CAST's annual budget, which this year stands at more than 300 million yuan (US$37.5 million).

Unlike before when CAST and its branches used funds to build science popularisation facilities and organise related activities, the new money will be disbursed as a fund that grassroots science communicators can apply for.

Li Daguang, a professor of science communication at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says it will mean that the money is spent more efficiently.

But Li cautioned that the projects that attract funding should be independently evaluated.

In March this year, China revealed a 15-year plan for boosting scientific literacy that stressed the importance of raising public awareness about science in rural areas and among disadvantaged people, including the jobless (see Scientific literacy: a new strategic priority for China).

More than 70 per cent of China's population live in rural areas.