Robert Chapman - Public gene knowledge

As DNA sequencing becomes cheaper, having a good understanding of genetics will become more important. But what does the public know?
06 June 2016

Interview with 

Robert Chapman, Goldsmiths University of London


Kat - As technology and scientific research gather pace and genomic sequencing procedures become cheaper, having a good understanding of genetics will become more and more important to us all. From getting a genetic test at the GPs surgery to choosing between genetically modified food or its unaltered but selectively bred counterpart or even streaming children in school based on their genetic ability, genes are playing an increasingly prominent role in science and society. But what does the public actually know about our genes and how they work? That's the question that intrigued PhD student Robert Chapman from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Robert - There's been so much development in the area of genetics research and we're not really as a society in a place to debate those developments very effectively. So what I'm trying to workout is why we're not in that place and what we can do to help as a society develop the tools to debate these issues that are going to become more and more important as this research develops.

Kat - I've just written a book that's aimed at the public to help them understand genetics. And I think, "Yeah, yeah! Everyone should just buy my book." But I guess it's not quite as simple as that. How do we find out what people know? I guess that must be the starting point.

Robert - It absolutely is and the first thing we're doing is piloting a research study to look at exactly that question - what people know, what they don't know, and what they think they know. We're hoping to find out also if there's any predictors of areas of knowledge or concern. So for example, to people from certain ethnic groups have different concerns to other groups - are there age differences, are there international differences, is the way that genetics is taught at school a predictor of concerns and things like that. So, we're really trying to do an empirical quantitative study, I believe for the first time, in the broad area of genetics. There has been research in this area, focusing on medical genetics, but not generally the issues that they apply across society so that's the new thing hopefully.

Kat - So everything from pea plants to pandas.

Robert - Exactly, yeah. I couldn't say it better.

Kat - So tell me a bit more about the study. What are you actually doing? What are you asking? Who are you asking?

Robert - So I can't give too much away because we've just piloted it and I'm hoping that some or all of your readers will be interested enough to engage with the study when it is published. But we're looking at what people know about genetics so there are general knowledge questions. We're looking at how they feel about genetics. So do they have concerns for example about genetically modified foods? We're also asking for information about their demographics. So this is very much a first stage. We're hoping to talk to as many people as possible. We're aiming for about 5,000 participants and stratified by profession and country. We're asking people whether they're parents or students so we can really build-up a picture of the demographics of our participants and see if there are any trends that we can spot which might help us target training material information more effectively.

Kat - We've touched on why this is so important but let's dig into that a bit more. Why do the public really need to get to grips with genetics as opposed to any other scientific discipline?

Robert - It's not necessarily as opposed to any other. I think this debate about genetics is at least as important as the debates about climate change. People seem to be very much more informed about those issues for the most part. But what we're learning about genetics, it's providing information that might cause a fundamental shift and how we relate to ourselves and to each other. And so, we are learning what it is to be human and the interactions that make us who we are. If we can then control those interactions or manipulate them - so for example, if we can say this sort of environment is not conducive for this sort of person in the development of reading skills, should we be doing that? So that's why it's important. It fundamentally changes how we relate to ourselves and each other.

Kat - There's been a lot of talk about using genetic tests and things like cancer medicine so you can test someone's tumour and say, "Okay, it's got that gene fault so you need X, Y, Z drug." But you're talking about touching on much more broader social issues - things like, education, lifestyle, upbringing, very much wider issues. These haven't been talked about at all.

Robert - No and that's why it's such a huge project. It's such a huge undertaking and this is just the start of the conversation. It's a huge issue and there are great resources out there from the Sanger Institute, the Wellcome Trust, Nuffield. But most of them focus on biomedical implications or genetic research. What we're hoping to do as part of the Accessible Genetics Consortium which is the consortium I've been part of setting up is look at just improving general genetic literacy so that those issues - but also more general sociological issues can be discussed more usefully.

Kat - This may be an impossible question to answer, but if there was one thing, one concept or one fact that you wanted the public to know about genetics, what would it be?

Robert - It's not a difficult question because I've been thinking about since I was about 15. I think one of the big difficulties is that people consider genetics in quite binary terms. We're taught at school about blue and brown eyes, dominant and recessive alleles, and you will have one or the other. And I clearly remember putting my hand up and asking the teacher, "What about green eyes?" And I was told not to worry as it wouldn't be on the exam.

Kat - I've got green eyes. I always wondered about that.

Robert - So I think if we can work to help people learn a little bit and it's not much more. You don't need to know much more about genetics to understand why that simple Mendelian pattern is only applicable in rare instances. In fact, the principles of Mendelian inheritance work but you've got to remember that this is across multiple genes and those genes have interactions with each other in the environment which is a much bigger issue. But from my mind, one of the fundamental things to address is this idea that there is a gene for A or a gene for B and it's simply not that simple.

Kat - Robert Chapman from Goldsmiths, University of London, and the website for The Accessible Genetic Consortium is


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