Genetics Society 101

It seems somewhat incongruous, given all that has happened so far in 2020, to be writing about last year’s anniversary celebrations and how we look to move forward.  Those celebrations now seem a world away, in a halcyon half-remembered age where a chat over the buffet lunch during the centenary conference, a dance at the ceilidh or a raised glass at the anniversary dinner were the innocuous unquestioned normal.  In early March, when we made the decision to cancel our joint spring meeting with BSDB, the disruption to that normality was becoming increasingly evident.

In the new normal, however, more than ever our science and the rigour that it brings, need to be centre stage, both to research and to inform.  In the latter context, we were delighted to be able to join forces with the TED-Ed organization to produce a short video on COVID-19 testing that, even in its short existence, has had hundreds of thousands of views worldwide.  A special thanks goes to our committee member Dr Jim Huggett for acting as science advisor for this.  It is, I think, a model of its kind and I encourage you to take a look.

I am also delighted that the Genetics Society is doing some part in bringing the best science to the public by partnering with the award-winning Cosmic Shambles video platform, fronted by Robin Ince (who you might know by his association with the Radio 4 series, The Infinite Monkey Cage that he co-hosts with Prof Brian Cox).  We are co-sponsoring a series, appropriately named Genetics Shambles, on genetics and evolution.  Focused initially on the science of COVID-19, it will move on to what we can learn from sequencing genomes, viral and otherwise, then moving into advances in other areas, such as cancer genetics and recent advances in understanding human evolution.  These programs are designed to be a trusted source of information.  As such they will feature experts talking only about what they really know about. In case you miss the live shows, they will be available both on our website and on that of the Cosmic Shambles network.  This is as much an experiment for us as it is for them.

The series will also confront many of the tricky moral issues that our science is associated with.  Here we face a big unknown.  What do people think about when they think about genetics?  Do they see it as important helpful science or something to be distrusted?  Are the new genetic technologies feared or favoured?  A few years ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry were faced with a similar problem – how to be an outward facing influential organization when we don’t know the audience?  Just as they commissioned work to evaluate perceptions of their science (with surprising results), so too now, as part of our maturation post the centenary year, we too are undertaking such a study.  This is led by our Public Engagement Czar, Cristina Fonseca.  Plans are afoot to partner with similarly interested bodies.  We will update on conclusions via the website and newsletter.

While it is hard to be optimistic in these dark times, there are I think patches of blue-sky peeking through the clouds.  As a society we are the largest we have ever been, with around 2500 members.  This growth is in no small part owing to new members recruited from the junior ranks: undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and early career researchers.  They are the future and as a society we will continue to support them all, as we always have, as best we can.