Press Release-Scientific Risk and Public Engagement Workshop, Wuhan (in Chinese)

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Bernotaite Visits Chinese Partners in Wuhan

by Ausma Bernotaite

Research Officer Ausma Bernotaite recently visited Huazhong University of Science & Technology (HUST), our partners in hosting the Scientific Risk and Public Communication workshop in Wuhan this March.

Our partner for the workshop is Prof Ruipeng Lei, who is also the Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy in HUST and the Executive Director of the Center for Bioethics. Prof Lei has been active in empowering a bioethics dialogue in Mainland China as well as international exchange.

Together with Prof Lei’s team, we will invite discussion on communicating emerging science in the wake of new national guidelines on ethical governance in China. The workshop will bring together different stakeholders together to discuss how best to use new and existing GM technologies and communicate them to the public. The workshop organisers have invited policy makers, scientists, sociologists, organic market organisers and public engagement specialists.

During her stay in Wuhan, Bernotaite visited HUST’s International Academic Exchange Centre, where this workshop will take place. Given Wuhan’s rising status as a leading research city in China, it is not surprising to find that this Exchange Centre offers a range of thoughtful services and excellent facilities that help conference organisations (and they even have an amazing in-house restaurant!). We look forward to exchanging thoughts, ideas and experiences in the vibrant academic environment in HUST.

(in the featured images are Ausma Bernotaite, Research Officer for GSA (left), Prof Ruipeng Lei (middle) and Yakun Ou, Research Assistant to Prof Lei (right))

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Wuhan Workshop: Scientific Risk and Public Communication

Scientific Risk and Public Communication Workshop

25-26 March (Saturday-Sunday), 2017

Venue: International Academic Exchange Center (IAEC), Huazhong University of Science & Technology, Wuhan, China

Being a leading sponsor and beneficiary of life science research, the strategic importance of accountable governance of China’s science is well recognised by domestic and international regulators, scientific practitioners and relevant industries. Yet in contrast to China’s increasing research power, the public engagement of science remains at a nascent stage. Cases such as unsupervised GM food trials and industrial food engineering scandals have not only damaged China’s own public trust in biotechnologies, but also impaired the global reputation of transnational research.

This workshop stems from the ESRC funded project, ‘Governing Scientific Accountability in China’. Extensive fieldwork from the study has found that although there is good will from both scientific practitioners and civil society groups, as well as heavy investment from the Chinese government, a key hindrance for (re)building trust and accountability of science in China is a lack of public engagement skills amongst scientists.

The event aims to address this gap by bringing together 50 delegates (e.g. policy makers, leading scientists, bioethicists, sociologists, public engagement experts, journalists and relevant civil society staff) from both China and the UK. The workshop theme focuses primarily but not exclusively on Genetically Modification (GM) technologies. This is not only because the GM debate is currently the most high profile social-political concern in China. More importantly, as North American and European experiences have shown, the GM debate could serve as a transformative opportunity to reexamine governing rationales, promote institutional cultural change and recondition science-society and state-society relationships.

Arguably the first of its kind in China, the workshop provides a multi-stakeholder platform and enhances China’s scientific accountability to both domestic and international audiences through 1) exploring both the failures and successes of existing public engagement avenues; 2) providing capacity building on engagement skills; and 3) identifying a roadmap for future public engagement that is pertinent to Chinese particularities.

In line with our commitment to promoting good governance on the ground, we chose the venue of Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei. Wuhan offers a unique and stimulating context for this event. Historically known as ‘the Granary Under Heaven’, in the past decade, Wuhan has extended its agricultural heritage into being the national hub for GM crop research. In addition, home to an astounding 88 universities, Wuhan is also the world’s largest city in terms of college student population. It is, thus, an ideal location in which to nurture the public dialogue of science.

For more information, please contact Dr Joy Zhang (PI) or Ms Ausma Bernotaite (Research Officer)


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GM Debates with Chinese Characteristics?

Dr. Joy Zhang recently contributed to the China Policy Institute Analysis (CPI: Analysis) blog at the University of Nottingham.

In this piece, Dr Zhang highlighted the similarities of public scepticism towards GM food between China and European countries. She argued that ‘to highlight the close resemblance of the origin and public views of GM debates between China and Europe is not to negate Chinese particularities…But to ascribe something as having “Chinese characteristics” may falsely exaggerate the difficulty (or impossibility) of responding to it. If one were serious about bridging gaps of opinion in the GM debate, then recognising which issues may be universal is just as important as identifying which issues are local. This is not simply true in terms of how China can “draw lessons” from the European experience, such as how to deliver better public engagement with a more sensible appreciation of public concerns. But it is also true for China, and observers of China, to have a clearer view of which aspects of the GM disputes can be addressed with more scientific facts, better policy directives or the right economic incentives, and which must be attended to through social means.’

The full article can be accessed here:

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Zhang on Social Uptake of Sustainability

Speaking at the 3rd Global China Dialogue at the British Academy last Friday, Dr Joy Zhang argued that ‘sustainable sustainability’ depends not only on sound economic calculation, but also on healthy and fair social relations. There is both a temporal and a spatial dimension to sustainable development.

Drawing on her fieldwork finding on China’s food safety debate, Dr Zhang pointed out that few would dispute that how individuals interpret their ‘fair’ entitlement to resources, what values they associate with consumption preferences and how they weigh the importance of their contribution to a better society all have exponential accumulative impact on China’s sustainable future. Yet findings from ongoing Governing from Scientific Accountability in China project suggested that steering these social perceptions and mobilising collective actions require more than simple top-down instructions or nation-wide education. It demands an engaged approach that empathises with citizens’ intimate experience of environmental and social vulnerabilities.

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Research Assistant Vacancy

The School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research have an exciting opportunity for a Research Assistant to join their team to assist Dr Joy Zhang’s project “Governing Accountability in China’s Life Sciences”.

You will play a key role in writing a research report on global debates of genetically modified (GM) food and GM policy making, which will be fed into a stakeholder training workshop in China, spring 2017. You will also organise events and will also actively promote public interest for the project through various promotional activities.

Please note that while knowledge of China is preferable, candidates without either Chinese language skills or prior knowledge of China are invited to apply.

The position is offered on a part time basis (0.5FTE) for a fixed period of 8 months starting 10 January 2017.

As Research Assistant you will:

  • Assist with writing a research report.
  • Organise two key project events.
  • Actively promote public interest for the project.

To be successful in this role you will have:

  • Experience of academic writing and literature reviews.
  • The ability to write effective and concise reports.
  • Excellent organisational and project management skills.

School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

The School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research is one of the largest departments of its type in the UK, and is the largest department in the Faculty of Social Science.

The School has a strong research culture; in REF 2014 research by the School was ranked 2nd for research power in the UK. It was also 3rd for research intensity, 5th for research impact and 5th for research quality (GPA).

An impressive 94% of our research-active staff were submitted to the REF. 99% of the research submitted was judged to be of international quality. The School’s environment was judged to be conducive to supporting the development of world-leading research, gaining the highest possible score of 100%. The School currently has over 150 staff spread across the two campuses. The post holder will benefit from being located in a vibrant and supportive research culture.

Further Information

Interviews are to be held: w/c 14 November 2016.

Please find full job description and application details on

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To ‘insure’ a good life? Reflections on ChinaReproTech conference

Dr Joy Zhang recently attended the ChinaReproTech conference organised by the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at Cambridge.

A most intriguing theme related to the governance of scientific accountability in China was the twin discourses on ‘insurance’ and ‘assurance’. Both papers in the opening session dwelled on quality ‘assurance’ and the ‘insurance’ of good birth/good life. The idea of ‘insuring’ good birth is incredible. It of course immediately triggers a classic ‘risk society’ question – how can one ‘insure’ the quality of a future being when some genetic and epigenetic risks remain unknown or disputable? This point was further highlighted in later discussions on the ‘illogical’ quick normalisation of IVF technology in China when its first IVF child is merely 27 years old.

Another fascinating point is why ‘insurance’ and ‘assurance’ are needed at all in the regulatory discourse, and why both seem to have received increasing attention from the medical institutions. If it were true that the popularity of IVF is a result of the government re-orientating its population policy and of a social adherence to Confucian culture, then one would suspect that with the centrally enforced and deeply rooted commitment to reproduction, IVF clinics and the services they provide should not expect much social scrutiny and skepticism. Yet a number of talks suggested that this is not the case. Both the Chinese public and doctors have developed heightened awareness of the financial, physical and social risks these new technologies expose them to. Underlying doctors’ active ‘empowerment’ of their patients, is a redistribution of risk and responsibilities. Similarly, underlying the wider family’s support and participation in the ‘making’ of a child is a renegotiation of gender relations and the ‘burden’ of motherhood. Both of the discourses on ‘insurance’ and ‘assurance’ can be seen as reactionary towards the fact that the reproduction business becomes a venue for arbitrating rights and responsibilities at different levels.

The study on reproductive technologies offers insight on the bigger social stratification China is going through. It is an imbalanced process which is often described as the already-vulnerable being subjected to ever greater physical & emotional exploitation (eg. reproductive rights of young single female). This has some truth to it. But the dissemination of scientific facts and availability (and increasing affordability) of new technologies also forms a democratisation of science, in which the once-vulnerable may be equipped with expanded life options and be enlightened (and incentivised) to redefine the terms and conditions of social relations (eg. doctor-patient relation, family relation, role of gender, migrant workers etc).

To expand on this point, one interesting anecdote is that a number of Chinese participants challenged a ‘default’ portrayal of Chinese female as submissive and Chinese society as repressive. The underlying dispute is not so much that the Chinese regime is no longer repressive or that gender tensions are already resolved. But there is a subtle but important difference in framing. For most ‘outside observers’, i.e. North American & European academics, they often treat these facts as the (relatively stable) social condition that these sciences operate in. But Chinese stakeholders see the same facts as a social situation that enlightened scientific progress/education may help to evade.

The discussions in Cambridge reconfirmed one imperative for research on bioethics in China. That is, the implementation, popularisation, and administration of reproductive technologies begs a systematic ‘re-cognition’ of contemporary Chinese values. Here ‘re-cognition’ means two things. One is that just as new biotech is used (by various Chinese authorities) to re-assemble a Chinese identity through DNA sequencing and genetic propensities, academic inquiries need to be willing to ‘cognise’ Chinese values in the making. The other is that the alleged scale, extent and condition in which these new social values (including old Confucian values that reincorporated into fashion) exert their impact need to be empirically substantiated and recognised.

The social stratification challenge faced by China repro-tech is not limited to the negotiation of ‘who should be responsible for what?’, which itself is complicated enough. But a more critical question for an authoritarian regime known for its fragmented and under-institutionalised administrative practice is this: how can different layers and divisions of responsibilities be pined down to an arrangement that ‘insures’ or ‘assures’ accountability of all stakeholders?

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First Phase Fieldwork Complete!

GSA-China’s first phase of data collection in China is now complete. The research focus has been on how scientific accountability has been problematised and responded to in China.

Thanks to NGOs staff, bioethicists and government administrators who have provided invaluable help. Special thanks to Prof Chenggang Zhang and his PhD students at the Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University. They provided stimulating discussions on what ‘being healthy’ means to contemporary Chinese.

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‘Contested Symbiosis’ – Dr Zhang on State-NGO relations in China

NGOs are a key component in a civil society to ensure the state’s delivery of accountable governance. Yet the Chinese government’s new draft regulations on NGOs seems to put the survival of civil groups in an authoritarian system in a more worrying state. Recently openMovement published an invited contribution from Dr Zhang on State-NGO relations.

In this article, Dr Zhang pointed out that ‘China’s heightened regulation of NGOs serves to pressure (global) civil society’s activities back into the government’s comfort zone. Compared to the loose network of homegrown NGOs which have been effectively pushed out of the government radar due to its high registration bar, foreign NGOs are easier to account for.’

But she also argued that there is room for optimism, for NGOs, both international and homegrown, have acted creatively in mitigating government constraints: ’While the government aims to bring NGO operations into its close supervision, NGO activities bring state accountability into public scrutiny. While ‘Chinese particularities’ have been a blanket justification for government agendas, NGOs challenge their banality and steer political attention to actual social needs.’ It is through this contested symbiotic relations that the State and NGOs compete for influence.

For the full version of the article, please visit:

openMovement is a platform dedicated to the global and public sociology of social movements. It aims at providing critical and empirically-based outlooks on social movements and new expressions of social and cultural transformations.

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New Publication on the ‘Credibility Paradox’ in China’s Science Communication

In contrast to debates on China’s rising status as a global scientific power, issues of China’s science communication remain under-explored. As part of the GSA-China project, Dr. Joy Zhang conducted 21 in-depth interviews in 3 cities and examined Chinese scientists’ accounts of the entangled web of influence which conditions the process of how scientific knowledge achieves (or fails to achieve) its civic authority.

A main finding of our study is  a ‘credibility paradox’ as a result of the over-politicisation of science and science communication in China. Respondents report that an absence of visible institutional endorsements renders them with more public credibility and better communication outcomes. Thus, instead of exploiting formal channels of science communication, scientists interviewed were more keen to act as ‘informal risk communicators’ in grassroots and private events. Chinese scientists’ perspectives on how to earn public support of their research sheds light on the nature and impact of a ‘civic epistemology’ in an authoritarian state.

The finding is detailed in a new Public Understanding of Science article,  ‘The “Credibility Paradox” in China’s Science Communication: Views from Scientific Practitioners’. 

The OnlineFirst version of this paper can be accessed here:

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