We live in a world where the products, or by products, of science are applied everywhere around us. It’s the chemistry in the paint that colours our walls. It’s the hydro-electric dam that powers our cities. It’s in our smartphones. It’s within the medications that interact with the cells of our bodies. The everchanging and complex natural world that surrounds us illustrates infinite scientific applications. Science informs our understanding of how things work. The evidence we gather through scientific research guides us and influences public policy decisions that affect various aspects of our lives.
Living in the Information Age, significant attention has been given to the knowledge economy — one that creates, disseminates, and uses knowledge, among other things, to enhance economic growth and development. Knowledge has always been at the core of any country’s development, however the increased speed in the creation and dissemination of knowledge makes it an even more important ingredient today. The success of a knowledge economy is characterized by close links between science and technology with greater importance placed on innovation for economic growth and competitiveness, as well as increased significance of education, and lifelong learning.
Scientific literacy is essential because advances in science and technology are rapidly changing how people interact with products and services, careers available and people’s pursuit of them, how they do their jobs, and so on. Increasingly, people from all walks of life will need a basic understanding of the principles of math and science and how they are applied. Science education teaches us critical thinking, how to problem solve and make informed decisions. These skills are becoming more integral to every aspect of a person’s life, from cradle to grave.
Through the life sciences lens, genomics combines biology, genetics and computer science to provide important insights into disease which is enabling us to develop new treatments and innovative medical devices. Genomics is also enabling an understanding of our natural resources, guiding our ability to adapt to changing conditions, aiding in economic development, and environmental conservation. These exciting advances are transformational and disruptive and require even greater societal engagement than ever before.
However, limited understanding of the impact and applications of genomics may adversely impact the public’s understanding and application of the power of genetics and genomics in health, agrifood and natural resource sectors. A study[i] of science culture in 2014 revealed some insight into Canadians’ understanding of scientific concepts. Forty-two per cent of Canadians exhibited a sufficient level of knowledge to grasp basic concepts and understand general media coverage of scientific issues, and according to the data, knowledge levels had increased since 1989. However, many Canadians struggled to explain key scientific concepts. For example, 51% of respondents had a general understanding of the term DNA, 46% could articulate the features of a scientific study, and only 28% could accurately explain the term molecule.
Even the prospect of delivering precision health care in a clinical setting is challenging. Health providers across the health care continuum have varying needs for genomics education. Ongoing education opportunities will be essential to enhance uptake and understanding for health care providers who were not exposed to genomics technology during their training. With the rapid pace of technological change and application, ongoing training becomes imperative. We’ll need more genetic counsellors and physicians who understand the value of genomics to make genomic medicine accessible, interpretable, and applicable. One of the initiatives Genome BC is currently working on is the development of an education asset map to examine the various tools that are currently available for health care providers in BC and to determine any gaps in order to enhance knowledge and application.
For its contribution to science literacy, Genome BC has developed an enviable number of communications and education outreach programs over the years to aid in increasing understanding and awareness of genomics. Genome BC’s Geneskool is a strong example of how science opportunities for youth can be enhanced so that kids can grow up understanding, questioning and responsibly applying the new technologies that are available today. In addition to campus field trips and the immensely popular Summer Science Program, Geneskool supports teachers by providing hands-on classroom activities and workshops aligned to BC’s grade 9–12 curriculum to help educate students about this complex topic in new and interesting ways.
Our GeneTalks program also brings public awareness and dialogue around applied genomics across a variety of sectors. Genome BC has leveraged its extensive network of researchers, policy makers, industry partners and entrepreneurs, to host many public talks and outreach opportunities across BC, continually engaging the media, educators, students, and the general public, through thoughtful two-way dialogue around genomics and enriching an understanding of the life sciences.
Through these programs, Genome BC has endeavored to maintain a balanced influence on how new developments in science are communicated and discussed, and how public policy concerning genomics and their related issues, evolves. An objective understanding of genomics and related technologies based on the available evidence is essential to ensure the responsible application of these technologies to benefit society.
Here is one final thought — Scientia potentia. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin ‘scientia’, meaning knowledge. The most widely accepted definition of science is a systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories. In science communication, scientific advances and discoveries are often framed as having the potential to provide a benefit to society. The word ‘potential’ derives from the Latin word ‘potentia’ meaning ‘power.’ In future, when you see references to the potential of science, consider interpreting this as the ability of science to expand our imagination and provide human kind with the power to extend and enrich our lives. Knowledge is a powerful thing.
[i] Science Culture: Where Canada Stands, August 2014