Let's break out of our ivory tower

The enthusiasm of China's scientists to popularise their subject has useful lessons for their British counterparts, says Peter Briggs
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Another international conference, another dinner, with entertainment provided afterwards by a local choir that finished with a rousing performance of "Auld Lang Syne". This is not particularly surprising, perhaps, except for the fact that I was in Peking and that all members of the choir were professional Chinese scientists and engineers. The Voice of Science Chorus is one of many initiatives of the China Association for Science and Technology.

In many countries such as the UK the image of scientists as remote boffins, locked in their laboratories with little contact with the real world, is seen as a turn-off, especially for the young. China's scientific singers show they have interests and skills outside their laboratories. Even if their choice of songs is unlikely to switch on young people in Britain, they should at least challenge us to think what would.

More revelations came a few days later on 19 October at the start of the 1995 Shanghai Science Festival. The opening event was a slick, hi- tech show that put most of the talk-dominated events at British science festivals into the shade. It was televised live across the whole of eastern China, an area with a population of 200 million.

The theme of the festival was the information age. Its message to the outside world was that this teeming city of 13 million people is determined to harness the latest technological developments in its efforts to become one of the world's top business and communication centres.

For Shanghai's own citizens, the festival fostered a sense of pride in their city and encouraged them to improve their own lives by paying attention to the benefits of science and technology.

What that might mean became clear when I went on a visit to the Putou district of the city. In the middle of the housing estate - a depressing array of ugly concrete buildings - a white-coated doctor volunteers his Sunday morning to sit under a tree and provide consultations to anyone who cares to come. There are displays of nutritional meals and of plants that people can grow to help to "green" the neighbourhood, and a health worker is running practical first-aid classes. All of this is organised by the local committee for the popularisation of science - each district has one.

We would call what was happening basic education in health, nutrition and the environment. It is unlikely that we would refer to it as science. Yet it was science that directly affected the everyday lives of the local residents. Our Western tendency to compartmentalise subjects, associating the word science mainly with research work, only makes it seem remote and leads people to question its relevance in their lives. There is a lot to be said for the holistic approach taken in China.

The information age was in evidence in the Putou district, too. Outside the local supermarket, where a brass band was mustered to greet me and some of my opposite numbers from Australia and the United States, there was a display of computers on trestle tables. And residents were encouraged to try them out and to take further opportunities to learn how to use them.

Buying a computer is expensive. Over lunch with a local family, I learned that the PC used by their child cost the equivalent of two years' average earnings or the contribution the family was required to make when purchasing their flat.

The size of the flat was graphically illustrated when our lunch was interrupted by the arrival of a TV crew. We all had to get up because the entrance hall doubles as the dining room and the crew could not get in if we were sitting down. They had come to film me having lunch, and also the daughter's computer which they wanted me to demonstrate - a difficult task with its Chinese characters until I found the calculator. Their interest was a clear indication that such technology is not commonly found in people's homes.

Lunch, like all the hospitality I was offered, was overwhelming. Sometimes it was quite literally difficult to stomach, especially when the frogs, turtles and eels I passed in tanks as I entered a restaurant appeared subsequently on the table as delicacies.

It reminded me of my visit to the last Shanghai Science Festival in 1993. Two of us from the British Association were taken to see a problem-solving competition for 11-year-olds. The "problem" was to gut and stuff a quail as quickly and as neatly as possible. Asked where the quails came from, the organisers told us that each competitor had to bring his or her own. Pressed further, they admitted that the quails were brought alive and that the first part of the competition was to kill them.

When we inquired later whether the small number of girls in the group meant that China experienced similar problems attracting girls into science as we do in the UK, the answer was, "No, it's just that girls don't like killing quails."

I came away impressed by the Chinese commitment to the popularisation of science. Those involved want to learn from our experience at the BA. But the learning should not be a one-way process. I had seen enough to know that there are important lessons for us in the Chinese approach to science popularisation as well.

The writer is executive secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science