A Chinese initiative sets out to train 1.3 billion scientists--one farmer at a time.

During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s, China persecuted scientists and sent the Red Guard to the farthest reaches of the country to promote anti-intellectualism. This year, China is again sending delegates to the countryside, but this time they are spreading a very different sort of message: the virtues of scientific progress.

As part of its 15-year plan to develop nationwide science and technology literacy, particularly among farmers and migrant workers, Beijing has rolled out an 860 million renminbi ($111 million) initiative to introduce China’s vast, rural adult population to science. Formally established last year, the program uses unusual means such as “science trains” and “science circuses” to deliver its message. Academics and educators now tour the country, traversing even remote areas of Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces, where they greet locals, hand out materials and books translated into the nation’s minority languages, and unfurl red banners that read “Spread the Scientific Spirit.”

“There is a recognition within science policy-making structures that at a time when the level of investment [in science] is rising so rapidly, there is a need to bring people with them in that endeavor,” says James Wilsdon, director of the science and innovation program for United Kingdom consultancy Demos, who recently spent five months in China interviewing science officials. “It’s important that the vast hinterland of the Chinese population feels that this push for scientific development is about doing stuff that will improve the quality of their lives.”

As China pours money into ambitious initiatives like nanotechnology, supercomputers, and its space program, surveys suggest that as much as 98 percent of the population lacks the education necessary to comprehend the basics of science. But scientific achievement is increasingly part of modern China’s nationalism, and so the country’s uneducated workers—traditional allies in government-engendered nationalism—must comprehend science. President Hu Jintao called recently on government workers to “on all fronts vigorously publicize scientific development…and to instill it in the hearts of the people.”

In crafting its literacy program, China is keeping one eye on the U.S.—many of its initiatives, like youth science fairs, are in the American mold. With backing from the National Science Foundation, the Chinese Academy of the Sciences recently collaborated with Texas A&M University on a Web site that aims to be a clearinghouse for information on science-related topics ranging from pandas to SARS.

In a country that is developing the sciences even as it industrializes, however, unique challenges remain. “In China there are problems with getting people in the countryside to appreciate scientific and technological developments,” says Nico Pitrelli, project manager of the School of Science Communication at the International School of Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. To make programming relevant to farmers, educators focus on areas like agriculture and communicable disease; the theme of the 2005 literacy campaign was “Science and Technology Can Make People Healthy and Well-Off.”

Getting Chinese peasants to discuss scientific developments—and to sign on to the technonationalism that accompanies them—may be key to ensuring Chinese stability in the coming decades. “There is the chance that some of these things could become potential sources of tension,” Wilsdon says, citing recent peasant uprisings over environmental problems. The science literacy campaign, he adds, is “tied up in the debate about boosting democracy in certain areas in China.”

For the peasants standing along the road to Gansu in western China, the end point for one of the campaign’s science trains, the project may not translate into immediate knowledge. “What matters is that [rural Chinese] understand that there is something out there called science—and that [through it] they can have contact with a reality they would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience,” says Pitrelli. At the end of the line, China is fostering a culture of science literacy that may turn out to be part of a new revolution.
—Mara Hvistendahl

Originally published April 1, 2007

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