Public Understanding of Genetics: The Deficit Model


Genetics is relevant to many aspects of our lives. According to the deficit model of public understanding, any misgivings that people have about genetics and its applications are caused by a lack of understanding. Consequently, education in genetics is expected to lead to improved literacy in, and therefore support for, this area. However, studies show that education does not automatically lead to increased public support and that increased knowledge of controversial research may lead to decreased support for it. Understanding is thus a complex and dynamic process which depends on people's prior knowledge and on their social and cultural locations. Members of the public should not be seen as deficient in understanding. Rather, they have sophisticated understandings which should be acknowledged. Public support for genetics cannot be improved simply through more or better education; alternatives such as public engagement in science or institutional changes promoting trustworthiness may be more useful.

Key Concepts

  • According to the deficit model, lack of public understanding of genetics leads to an inability to fully participate in social life and potentially lack of support for new technologies. This can be remedied by education.
  • According to critical approaches to public understanding, understanding is a complex process that involves social and cultural factors.
  • Public understanding of genetics is more sophisticated than the deficit model assumes.
  • The idea of lay expertise suggests that people who are not certified scientists may nonetheless have useful and relevant, often experience‐based, knowledge that helps them make sense of science and genetics.
  • Public engagement, where people with different kinds of knowledge and opinions are consulted instead of merely educated, may help improve science–society relations.
  • The deficit model is a sticky concept: it remains popular in some areas of science, policy and science communication despite its shortcomings.

Keywords: genetics; citizenship; public understanding; genetic literacy; participation; lay expertise, critical public understanding of science


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Marks, Nicola J(Nov 2016) Public Understanding of Genetics: The Deficit Model. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005862.pub3]