Socialising the Genome

DATE: 14/03/16
By Anna Middleton

gnome_01177How easy is it to strike up a conversation about genomics? Geno-what?

Does the average person on the street know enough about the issues to even care?  A project called Socialising the Genome has just been launched to explore how to turn genomics from an anti-social concept to a more social one. Animations were created from focus group discussions to help understand how people talk about genomics, and what they understand. These animations are now on the newly launched website

searchme_01263It’s not just science of genomics that can seem impenetrable. Just the name itself can take people in all kinds of odd directions. [Several focus group participants assumed there to be a ‘mistake’ in pronunciation: sounding the silent ‘G’ in Gnome. This takes us off into all sorts of interesting tangents about the options for ‘Gnome testing’!]

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.

dnazing_00843Some of us will care little for the science behind those tests – in much the same way many of us know little of the engine under the bonnet of our car. However, the impact of a genomic test result may be relevant, not only to you, but also your family (this makes it quite different from other sorts of medical tests that give individual health results). Such a test may also reveal information that is quite unexpected as many different medical conditions are tested in one go.

What hooks can be used to convey the concepts, make it 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?
As a genetic counsellor, these are questions that I’ve been thinking about my whole career.

reasonstobecheerful_00130Reaching people with this, is a challenge; 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. After all, genetic information is not only important to individuals but also potentially those nearest and dearest too – it really is a social concept.

In the ‘Socialising the Genome project’ we are thinking carefully about what people already understand about genomics – even if they think they know nothing – and we have built on this to create a series of animations that can help to start a conversation about genomics with patients using the NHS.

searchme_00001The project is particularly exciting due to the novel partnership we have set up between social science (me) and the creative advertising world (Julian Borra Global Creative Strategist and Founder of Thin Air Factory and ex Saatchi and Saatchi Group Creative Director). Julian and I are using our collective skills to see if we can create a ‘populist, scalable conversation’. I provide the material; he provides the razzamatazz.

I have done a series of Focus Groups to explore what various groups of ‘public’ understand and believe already about genes, DNA, genetics and genomics. The insights gained from these have been given a creative makeover and turned into 6 animations. These animations will be evaluated via a set of questions to assess likeability, interest and whether the concepts inspire people to want to share them in some way.

glitch_00494The reason I feel particularly excited to be working directly with Julian is that he has a strong track record of delivering advertising messages that reach millions of people (know of the Churchill Insurance nodding dog? How about Richard Branson’s #VOOMPitch to Rich? Both of these are Julian’s handiwork).

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. We have created a new partnership that aims to combine our collective skills. 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.

dnazing_01427In that way we hope to rub some of the more anti-social corners off the deeper science conversations – and bring them to the dinner, café, chippy and brasserie table, so we can all benefit from having them and sharing them.

The animations can be found at Have a look, see what you think, leave us your views. We need to know if they are any good or not; and if not, then that’s useful to know too. We need to find out how to make genomics an everyday conversation for people currently unconnected to it and this is just a first step at finding out how to do this.

Anna Middleton
Anna is a Principal Staff Scientist (social science, ethics, genetic counselling), at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge

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