President’s update October 2018

President’s update

By Dr Craig Cormick


Science Communication in China

So how do you do science communication in a country with over a billion people, where there are several different languages, varying rates of general literacy and huge technological and educational gaps between those who live in cities and those who live in remote rural areas?

Having been lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural World Conference on Science Literacy in Beijing, I can share a few insights.

Run across three days with 30 different themed sessions the Conference attracted over 1,000 delegates from 38 countries – including senior figures from the Royal Society in the UK, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and similar organisations from many countries (yes, including the ASC!).  There were some big outcomes, like a declaration on collaboration and exchanges to actively promote public scientific literacy as one of the United Nations’ sustainable development issues.

And there were many, many smaller moments that may prove more achievable – such as swapping business cards, sci-comms war stories and best-practice ideas with people from so many different countries.

Having the title President of the ASC on my business card clearly carried a lot more weight than it does down at my local shops, as I not only found myself sitting in the comfy lounge chairs of the front two rows, but was stood up in a group photo with key international dignitaries and First-ranked Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of China, Wang Huning (yeah, I’m the one with the borrowed tie wearing black sneakers)

So what were the key learnings – beyond the standard government-approved media coverage of the success of the Conference?

Well first of all – China really, really knows how to do things on scale, and how to give government backing on scale to get an outcome. Their National Science Day is said to reach 1.3 billion participants. Not bad for a country of 1.42 billion.

Several of the international speakers gave really good talks on topics of interest to the West – but of much less relevance for China. For instance, the role of social media in a country that blocks access to Google, YouTube, Amazon, WhatsApp, Facebook etc. Or the role of the mainstream media and the challenges of meeting the media’s needs in a country with State-controlled media that does not lean to either sensationalism nor to investigative reporting.

China still has a generational gap like many countries with divides between Old School and New School – several elder Chinese speakers talked about the cause of science illiteracy being due to a lazy mindset and a reluctance to ready text books. But most younger Chinese speakers are more in line with contemporary thinking and discussed how to best align messages with audience interests and how to use multiple channels.

There was recognition given that succeed in raising science literacy (and yes, there were questions as to what exactly that meant), you needed four key things:

Political will

Government support

Public-centric view

Research into practice

And let’s be honest, it’s a rare year when in Australia when we can honestly claim to be ticking all four of those really well.

Of interest, a couple of things really stood out in a rather stark way too:

For instance, having a senior speaker from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) talk on the important work they do in protection patents seemed just a little bit out of place in China.

Also, First-ranked Secretary etc, Wang Huning, in opening the Conference, described one of the biggest negative impacts of technology being “disorder of morals”.  Pretty sure you won’t find that listed in most academic journals looking at the down-sides of new technologies in Western Countries.

It is no secret that China is pushing for science supremacy in several areas and has a goal of achieving a Nobel prize in science (any field will do). The fact that nearly all of the overseas delegates had their conference travel and accommodation costs met – which alone must have been more than most organisations in Australia have to spend on science communication in a year – demonstrated the effort China is putting into being a pre-eminent player in the sci-comms field too.

They may have a few hurdles to jump, including some old school mindsets, but over the course of the three-day conference clear changes in the way things were being discussed were evident.

And with the resources and the scale that China is willing to put behind initiatives that they prioritise, I expect we will see a lot more of China in the sci-comms space in the years ahead.


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