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Public scientific literacy in China

It’s on the agenda, says Fajun Chen

In the twenty-first century, a nation’s economic competitive power appears increasingly tied to its possession of independent intellectual property. The level of the public’s scientific literacy is of utmost importance to the construction of an innovation-oriented country.

In March 2006, the Outline of the Action Plan for Improving Scientific Literacy for All (From 2006–2010 and then 2010–2020),  hereinafter called the Outline, was issued by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.1 The Outline proposed a public scientific literacy project, to promote  basic scientific literacy through education, dissemination and popularization of science and technology, by the middle of this century. With this initiative, the government brought the issue of public scientific literacy onto the Chinese political agenda for the first time. 

Meaning of scientific literacy

According to the Outline, a citizen is scientifically literate if ‘he or she possesses the ability to understand the necessary knowledge of science and technology, to know basic scientific methods, to keep thinking scientifically, to advocate [a] scientific spirit, to use the above in making decisions in personal life and to participate in public affairs involving science and technology.’ The general goal set by the scientific literacy project is to ensure a minimum of scientific literacy for all Chinese people, so that they can cope effectively in a society based on science and technology. An equally minimum degree of scientific literacy has also been urged for India.2

In China today, the proportion of adults who are scientifically literate is very low. Investigations3 have shown that the gap between the level of scientific literacy of Chinese citizens (only 1.98 per cent in 2003) and that in the developed countries4 is enormous. Indeed, ignorance and superstition prevail in some regions of China. In view of this, there would be limited value in emphasizing how much scientific knowledge the public should possess. Improvement in scientific literacy would more fruitfully focus on functional scientific literacy, as the Outline advocates: scientific awareness, and people’s abilities to practise the knowledge they have mastered in personal and public decision-making.

Importance of scientific literacy

China is developing towards an industrialized country that demands a scientifically literate labour force for agriculture to be modernized. Peasants, who are the most important source of labour in China, but who have the fewest opportunities in education, need functional scientific literacy in order to strengthen their abilities to develop, survive, and transfer themselves to the non-agricultural sector.

Chinese people intend to make their country an innovative one in the coming years. However, the successful implementation of scientific and technological innovation requires well-educated decision makers and workers who are skilled in the management of machinery, computers, control centres, quantitative information and materials. So the workforce in towns--where modern industry and service are concentrated-- must be scientifically literate to further their chances in the employment market and innovate more.

China is becoming a more democratic country. It has increasing numbers of public issues involving science and technology which may require public participation in decision-making. Meanwhile, officials and civil servants engaging in public administration must be scientifically literate to improve their abilities in decision-making and administration. Since they generally decide whether most of the policies can be executed in China, the level of their scientific literacy will usually have a significant impact on the quality of public decision-making and administration.

The Chinese people are confronted with serious problems of environmental pollution and shortage of resources. Improving citizens’ scientific awareness is more important than enhancing their scientific knowledge to solve those problems, because scientific awareness often plays a more important role in deciding one’s motivation for action than limited scientific knowledge does. 

1 State Council of the People’s Republic of China (2006), The Outline of the Action Plan for Improving Scientific Literacy for All (2006-2010-2020). Beijng: The People Press

2 Rakesh Popli (1999), ‘Scientific Literacy for All Citizens: Different Concepts and Contents,’ Public Understanding of Science 8: 123–37

3 Survey Team of Chinese Public Scientific Literacy of China Association for Science and Technology. (2002) (and 2004). The Report of Chinese Public Scientific Literacy Survey in 2001 (and 2004). Beijing: Popular Science Press.

4 The results of surveys in 2005 suggest that approximately 35 per cent of Swedish adults are qualified and scientifically literate, 28 per cent of American adults, and 14 per cent of residents of the 27 member states of the European Union.  From presentation by Jon D Miller (May 2007), at China-US Science Popularization Forum, Shanghai

This is a shortened version of a paper co-authored by Fajun Chen which first appeared in Public Understanding of Science (September 2009) 18: 607-616

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Dr Fajun Chen
Dr Fajun Chen is an associate professor teaching the sociology of science at Anhui Medical University, China. She has published several papers on the public understanding of science.
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