Effectively communicating the promise of new technologies can be challenging, particularly when the science is not yet fully developed and its application is not well defined and understood. Toxicogenomics meshes toxicology with genomic technology (study of the entire expanse of genetic information in an organism) and may hold the promise of detecting changes in the expression of a person’s genes if he or she is exposed to toxicants. As defined by the National Center for Toxicogenomics, toxicogenomics is the “collection, interpretation, and storage of information about gene and protein activity in order to identify toxic substances in the environment, and to help treat people at the greatest risk of diseases caused by environmental pollutants or toxicants” (NCT 2002). As the technology develops and more data become available, it is important that scientists and the public discuss the promises and limitations of this new field. The Committee on Communicating Toxicogenomics Information to Nonexperts designed a workshop to consider strategies for communicating toxicogenomics information to the public and other nonexpert audiences, specifically addressing communication issues surrounding some key social, ethical, and legal issues related to toxicogenomics and how information related to the social implications of toxicogenomics may be perceived by nonexperts. Because research on the communication of toxicogenomics to the public is sparse, panelists who are experts in risk and biotechnology communication were asked to present research from their work. They applied their expertise in analogous areas to discuss ways to design an effective strategy to communicate toxicogenomics information. Panelists discussed communication barriers, such
as poor understanding of scientific principles and emotional responses to risk and uncertainty by the public, and health disparities in communication. The panelists also discussed effective communication tools, such as audience-based communication (focusing efforts on understanding the audience and creating messages based on the informational needs of that specific audience); mental models approach (assessing systematically what kinds of information should be conveyed to the public and then creating messages that meet those needs); public participation (encouraging public input and providing public access to the decision-making process); and developing, testing, and communicating of appropriate messages. They also discussed the importance of how the message is framed for the audience.
The workshop was not intended to develop consensus on the issues related to toxicogenomics communication but to provide useful background information on risk communication that may assist agencies and organizations in effectively communicating toxicogenomics information to the public.