We must revolutionize our communication of science to non-scientists

What ELSI is new (article)This commentary in the Genomics Law Report’s ongoing series What ELSI is New? is contributed by Chris Gunter, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

So many issues are intertwined that it’s extremely difficult to pick just one, but I suggest we must revolutionize our communication of science to non-scientists. In my past job as an editor for Nature, a daily task was to translate the most cutting-edge life science discoveries into language for multiple purposes: marketing, press release, highlighting in other journals, and so on. Regularly I would be dismayed at the end results, and resolve to somehow explain things better next time. Common ground between scientific papers and non-scientists can be harder to find than the “missing heritability.”

Now I work at a nonprofit institute and spend much time giving public lectures. I am struck by the absolute hunger of the public to understand genomics and personalized medicine. Our institute’s outreach activities are generating much-needed support from politicians, local universities, regional clinical centers, and school groups of all ages. People I meet often want to donate their time, money, or samples – but first and foremost, they want to understand.

Thus I propose our field engage in our own form of personalization: using education and media in all forms to convert the energy of the public into an army for science. Studies report non-scientists are likely to hear about genomics from their doctors or the media. Let’s incentivize scientists to use all forms of media we have now (and then invent some new ones) to engage the public. Let’s require two-way communication between health professionals and scientists on what applications or materials would be most useful and feasible in clinical settings. Let’s convince publishing firms to find new ways of making research available and accessible, and enable journalists and educators to be creative and accurate in conveying research results. Without such a revolution, I submit there will be no “full realization” of personalized medicine.