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Scientists, not government, should lead efforts to explain the benefits and risks of modern technology, says Li Daguang.

China was the first state to issue a law for science popularisation (in 2002), but it is a long way from achieving its objective of raising its citizens' level of scientific understanding.

It is half a century since the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) was founded to promote and popularise science. In those days China was a very poor country where 80 per cent of people could not read and write, let alone learn about science.

Formed from the merger of the All-China Federation of Natural Science Societies and the All-China Association for Science Popularisation, CAST acts as a bridge between the scientific community, the Communist Party and the Chinese government.

It has also campaigned hard to spread scientific knowledge via exhibitions, lectures, popular books and magazines, and field guides on agricultural technologies for remote communities.

It encourages scientists — both directly and through its 200 or more affiliated academic societies — to visit schools, factories and rural communities to talk about science.

Top-down communication

Yet despite these efforts, science communication in China remains largely a government-driven, top-down model.

Take, for example, the ambitious, long-term Scheme for the Advancement of Chinese Scientific Literacy, launched in 2006 and adopted by 14 national ministries. CAST, the Ministry of Science and Technology and other government departments have run popularisation campaigns on topics that the high-level communicators think important, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) H5N1 bird flu, China's manned space mission, and its moon exploration project.

But the efforts have been challenged from two sides. Scientists think the popularisation has nothing to do with their research, while audiences often don't see the connection with their everyday lives and find the form of communication — formal lectures — too dry. Audiences have to be mobilised to attend science popularisation lectures, in some cases even paid money.

This is a serious problem in an age when any information put out is competing for attention with the vast sea of free content available to the public via the Internet and other new technologies. Many people are reluctant to read about science ahead of entertainment, sport or the ubiquitous gossip blogs. But this does not mean that science is irrelevant. More and more scientific, technological and industrial projects are potentially changing our lives, and when this happens people want to know the science behind them.

This was the situation in a recent public protest against a proposal to build a chemical plant, Xiamen PX, in the coastal city of Xiamen, in south-eastern Fujian Province. The public demanded to know whether the plant posed a serious health threat. Under strong public pressure, the local government held a hearing last December (2007), but the scientists commissioned by the government talked in technological jargon beyond ordinary people's understanding. How can citizens fully participate in consultations if officials do not use layman's language?

The building of the plant was eventually suspended. But it seems that, despite the investments in science communication, when it comes to controversial issues where the public has an urgent need for — and right to — scientific knowledge, the voices of science popularisation organisations, including CAST, struggle to be heard.

The same situation surrounds debates on the safety of genetically modified crops, the Three Gorges Project and the South–North Water Diversion Project.

Science popularisation should not be about treating the public as pupils in an old-fashioned school, where the teacher reads from a textbook, and they are expected to note down what he says without asking questions. A top-down approach will not work. The public has a right to be involved in the science-policymaking process, to share their concerns and to expect them to be addressed. And to do that they may need help to understand the science involved.

A new approach needed

With 200 member national academic societies and grassroots branches across the country, CAST is well placed to promote a more responsive model of science communication and meet the public's right to know.

It can promote the use of reliable channels to get information, help equip people with the necessary skills and scientific literacy to understand the information and the double-effects of technology — not only the benefits but also the harm it can bring, such as pollution from modern chemical factories — and it can mobilise scientists to encourage social participation in science development.

But CAST alone cannot change the top-down model for popularisation. The problem is systematic. In the short term, some technical improvements can be made, such as increasing evaluation of science popularisation projects and using feedback to guide ensuing activities. In the long term, CAST should work with other science departments (the Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and National Natural Science Foundation of China) to work out rules to encourage scientists to engage in a dialogue with the public.

Professor Li Daguang is the director of Science Communication Centre at the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences based in Beijing