Scientific literacy in China is climbing rapidly, although it remains low compared to the West. A new survey of public understanding of science and technology finds that while only 1.4% of the Chinese population is familiar with basic scientific concepts and how they are acquired--compared with 17% in the United States--that figure is 7 times higher than in the last poll, in 1996. And public attitudes are very favorable: Scientists have replaced business leaders to rank first on a list of most admired professions.
The nationwide survey of 5000 adults was carried out earlier this year by Li Daguang of the China Association for Science and Technology. Men were found to be considerably more interested in science than women. By employment, university students topped the sample with a scientific literacy rate of 11%, followed by 6% for professionals. Industrial workers and farmers brought up the rear, at 0.5% and 0.04%, respectively. Not surprisingly, the wealthier eastern regions of the country had the highest literacy rate, 2.3%, while the undeveloped western region scored lowest, at 0.6%.
Li says that he was disappointed with the low level of usage of such public venues as libraries, museums, and zoos. Only 14% of the Chinese public visit science or natural history museums, for example, compared with 30% in the United States. He was also surprised and chagrined that only 1.6% of the sample uses the Internet to obtain scientific information, compared with a U.S. rate of 11%. He hopes that the results will lead the government to take steps to increase public exposure to science, including science museums in rural areas, public lectures by scientists, and university courses on science communication for students and journalists.
The Chinese survey is a modified version of one developed by Jon Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier surveys "worked well in the big cities," says Miller, "but they didn't work in the hinterlands" because of cultural differences on such topics as the origins of disease. Still, he believes that the effort "is as good a survey as can be done in China."
Li plans to conduct three surveys next year to measure the literacy and attitudes of government officials and the media, as well as how scientists interact with the public.