Found in Translation: Public engagement and research in Beijing, China

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Several members of the audience wore headphones, but it wasn’t a sign of disrespect. Sitting in the Beijing Conference Center, they were listening to the simultaneous Chinese-English translation offered for the introductory session of the sixth NUCLEUS field trip. Both participants and hosts were alert to the cultural differences on display, and the potential they offered for mutual learning.

Jun Yan, Deputy Director of Beijing Development Center of Popular Science answers a question during the field trip kick-off


The field trips of the NUCLEUS project play a reconnaissance role, scouting out different territories to learn about their stakeholder groups and cultures. Here, the focus was on public engagement and its relationship with responsible research and innovation (RRI). How do public engagement professionals relate to researchers, and vice versa? What are the barriers to strengthening the dialogue between research and society? Where are the opportunities? The field trip also invited participants to see engagement in practice at the Beijing International Science Festival (BISF), and to learn from practitioners at the 2016 BISF Roundtable Conference.

Exhibit at the Beijing International Science Festival
An exhibit at the Beijing International Science Festival

The interviews, with over 20 professionals from public engagement and research, required patience and respect when translation was involved. However, the effort from both sides yielded new understandings of public engagement in Chinese social media, government, and culture. The examples, wide-ranging and thought-provoking, included pay-based systems for online Q&As with researchers, and the delicacy of challenging authority in a culture that values “saving face”. The new models and questioning of cultural norms highlighted the importance of bringing together international perspectives.

A translator for a field trip interview session
A translator explaining the response from a field trip interviewee

Interviewees also learned from the exchanges, according to Doris Zhang, a project manager at the Beijing Development Center of Popular Science (an affiliate organisation of project partner BAST). “They were inspired by the interview methodology, and are eager to hear  suggestions for barriers and opportunities for RRI in China.” The field trip and interview sessions were coordinated by NUCLEUS partners at the University of Aberdeen, Dublin City University, Beijing Association of Science and Technology (BAST) and the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP).

“Research discoveries don’t remain within the borders of the countries where they occur,” says Zhang. “Knowledge is a public good, with little regard for national boundaries, and this applies as well to science communication and popularisation.” Fittingly, the work in Beijing underscored the ability of translation – when used to listen, not only to speak – to build relationships between both research and society, as well as NUCLEUS partners.

Powerpoint slide discussing RRI
Navigating literal and cultural translations as NUCLEUS explores RRI in China

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