I’ve spent much of my career trying to understand the roles of genetics, and now genomics, in improving public health.* How genetics/genomics concepts and terminology enters the public discourse, the meanings non-scientists attach to this information, and how this information impacts decisions to participate in research and health services is important, but still relatively uncharted territory. Much of what the public knows and understands about genetics and genomics appears to be an interesting admixture of grade school science and exposure to popular culture and media (Bates, 2005; Lanie et al., 2004; Nelkin & Lindee, 2004; Richards, 1996; and others). Fictional book characters in The Time Traveler’s Wife and Harry Potter series often run headlong into genetic/genomic health, social, and ethical issues. Hollywood films are similarly chock full of modern or futuristic genetic technologies and characters weighing the risks, benefits, and morality of these innovations. Titles such as GATTACA, Jurassic Park, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the Resident Evil series do brisk business on Amazon.com. Even television has gotten into the act with offerings ranging from cholesterol drug commercials to the African American Lives series. Everywhere they turn, the public is bombarded with real and imaginary genetic/genomic information and technologies.
In the post-Genome Project era, we in genetics/genomics and public health have a duty to ensure that the public has the knowledge and skills, or genetic/genomic literacy, necessary for informed decision-making. Whether revised K-12th science and health curricula or some type of comprehensive public health genomics education, we will have to decide what constitutes functional genetic/genomic literacy and how we are going to deliver literacy-building programs and services. These are very complex questions. Therefore, I “second” James O’Leary’s call for multidisciplinary collaboration. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!
*The views expressed in this blog entry do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Health Administration, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, or Baylor College of Medicine.