Socialising the Genome: Sparking discussions about genomics in everyday life

Date: 14 March 2016

The Society and Ethics Research team has launched a project called Socialising the Genome to explore how to turn genomics from an anti-social concept to a more social one.

In early 2015 the Society and Ethics Research team launched a project called Socialising the Genome to explore how to turn genomics from an anti-social concept to a more social one.

Let us explain: The first time people might experience genomic technology is when being tested as part of routine healthcare and something genetic or inherited is picked up. Given that genomics is now becoming a mainstream source of data within most disciplines in medicine, it is likely that all of us will have some sort of genomic test at some point in our lives. The impact of a genomic test result – in contrast to other sorts of medical tests that give individual health results – may be relevant, not only to the person having the test done, but also to their family.

But ‘genomics’ is not a word in the mainstream vocabulary, nor is its meaning widely understood, which makes talking about the questions raised by this increasingly common-place medical field, hard. The science needs a conversation boost! It needs to feel meaningful, relevant and not least of all, it needs to be memorable so that the content can be relayed to relatives. It really is a social concept.

Genetic counsellor, Anna Middleton, Head of Connecting Science’s Society and Ethics Research, is constantly asking herself

  • What hooks can be used to convey the concepts, make them personal, help it resonate?
  • What sort of framings – narratives, metaphors, mantras and memes – can we use to socialise an otherwise dense topic that even the specialists find difficult to navigate?

And so the Socialising the Genome project was born, through the desire to learn how to make genomics an everyday conversation for people currently unconnected to it.

The Making of Socialising the Genome

Public focus groups were held to help understand how people talk about genomics, and what they understand. Then Anna joined heads with creative advertising expert, Julian Borra (Global Creative Strategist and Founder of Thin Air Factory, and ex Saatchi and Saatchi Group Creative Director, with a strong track record of delivering advertising messages that reach millions of people). Their collaboration resulted in six animations, using gnomes and glitches to present the concepts behind the science in different ways.

We don’t yet know what messages about genomics resonate with people, nor what information they feel they need to know, and this is what Julian and I have been puzzling over in considerable detail for the last year. Together we plan to discover new messages to deliver information about genomics – messages that connect people to the science, messages that they want to share, and messages that help them when discovering genomics for the first time in the NHS
Anna Middleton

Integral to the project is the feedback about their impact, and viewers are asked for feedback. Do the messages work? This is the first step in a long and fascinating journey to understand how best to inspire conversations about genomics in everyday settings.

The survey stage of the project is now closed, and its results are being analysed and written up. Watch this space for the outcome report!

Watch Anna’s interview with Sky News on socialising the genome.