Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Epigenetics: Barriers to the translation of scientific knowledge into public policies

Written by Charles Dupras and Vardit Ravitsky

Bioethics Programs, School of Public Health, University of Montreal


Environmental epigenetics is a rising field of scientific research that has been receiving much attention. It explores how exposure to various physical and social environments (e.g. pollution or social adversity) affects gene expression and, eventually, our health. Environmental epigenetics can sometimes explain why some of us carry increased risks of developing specific diseases. It provides activists a powerful vocabulary to promote environmental awareness and social justice. This new vocabulary, which allows us to discuss the consequences of disparities at the molecular level, has been enthusiastically mobilized as an effective way of stimulating political will for promoting public health preventive strategies.

However, this perspective – that we call the ‘policy translation’ of epigenetics – can be contrasted with a ‘clinical translation’ that targets the development of novel biomedical tools to assess epigenetic risks and reverse a detrimental epigenome. In a recent paper published in The Hastings Center Report, we argue that these two approaches are competing for public resources. We suggest that in Western contexts, the clinical translation of epigenetics may end up being prioritized over the policy translation of epigenetics, to the detriment of efforts to promote policy and public health. We highlight four potential barriers or biases that may impede the ‘policy translation’ of epigenetics, with the aim of cautioning against this scenario.

First, our societies operate under the ‘technological imperative’, a culturally engrained preference for technological solutions. In the context of epigenetics, this means that research findings are likely to be translated into biotechnological innovation that targets individual health.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.