Chinese ‘trust scientists more than government’

People in China want scientists to communicate with the public Copyright: Flickr/keso

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[BEIJING] Chinese citizens distrust the government, and public sectors in general, but hold up scientists as role models, according to a report.

The China Science Communication Report (2010–11), published annually by the China Institute of Science Communication, a Beijing-based independent think-tank, conducted a telephone survey with more than 1,000 people. This was followed by more in-depth studies with six, 15-member focus groups.

It found that the public rated the majority of the 14 government sectors surveyed — including the education, medical services, military and science sectors — as relatively untrustworthy.

The education and medical sectors, for example, scored around 6.7 points, below average, on a scale from one to ten. But the technology sector scored 7.5 points, second only to the military, which scored 7.9.

In a separate part of the survey, more than 90 per cent of the citizens surveyed said they regarded scientists as role models. They wanted more scientists to provide the government with scientific advice, but did not want them to become government officials themselves.

"The findings are consistent with the daily observation that Chinese people generally distrust government," said Zhan Zhengmao, lead author of the report and a research fellow at the China Association for Science and Technology.

In recent years, members of the public have frequently rejected government advice and explanations for a range of events, including a recent example of the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, this year (11 March). Despite the government’s assurance that radiation levels in China’s atmosphere were safe, rumours that eating salt would protect from radiation-related illnesses led to empty shop shelves across the country.

Another example was growing scepticism over the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, which led the government to boost funds for the public debate on GM crops.

The report also found that more than 92 per cent of surveyed citizens said the most important thing for scientists to do, in addition to their own research, is communicate science to the public.

"As suggested by the report, scientists are obliged to communicate science, and Chinese science agencies must improve their efforts to engage more scientists in science communication," said Jia Hepeng, executive director of the China Science Media Centre.