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A Sociologist looks at Epigenetics

Dr Andrew Bartlett, Research Associate, The University of Sheffield

27 February 2017

How does inequality get ‘under the skin’? Epigenetics, health disparities and the making of public policy: A Sociologist looks at Epigenetics

A report by Dr Andrew Bartlett, Sociologist from the University of Sheffield

Last November, I visited the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus to attend the Epigenomics of Common Disease conference. I hadn’t been to the campus in years, not since my PhD research on the organisation of the Human Genome Project, and again I was there to do research. This time to study epigenetics; as a body of knowledge, as a research community, as a source of claims about what the future might hold.

How epigenetics sheds new light on the link between health inequalities and socioeconomic status

I have a background in genetics and am one of a team of sociologists working on a Leverhulme Trust funded project, “How Does Inequality Get ‘Under The Skin’? Epigenetics, health disparities and the making of public policy” with Dr Vincent Cunliffe, Professor Paul Martin, Professor Sue White, Dr Maurizio Meloni (all Sheffield) and Professor Dave Wastell (Nottingham).

We are interested in the way epigenetics sheds new light on the link between health inequalities and socioeconomic status. Health inequalities between different socioeconomic groups are a major public health challenge, yet the underlying causal mechanisms linking health status to social position remain poorly understood. There are suggestions in the literature that epigenetic processes may be involved in mediating this relationship, although this is still an emerging field.

Epigenetics and Stress Network

Our team is also part of EpiStressNet, an ESRC and BBSRC jointly-funded  multidisciplinary research network. This network includes biologists, epidemiologists, public health researchers and social scientists from across the UK and Europe who are interested in the biological impacts of social and behavioural stressors. For further information about this network please see EpiStressNet

Epigenetic research, health inequalities, influence on public and policy debates and impact on society

In particular, we are interested in the inter-disciplinary collaborations that are required to research the way in which social experience and environmental exposure alter the body at a molecular level, as well as the ways in which epigenetics is reported and recruited into the rhetoric of policy debates. An epigenetic explanation for health inequalities has potentially major implications for social and health policy, and raises important questions about personal and collective responsibility for health and illness.

Our multidisciplinary social science project aims to not only describe epigenetic research, but also to analyse how knowledge (and promises) are being used to understand health inequalities, to explore its influence on public and policy debates, and assess its broader impact on society. Science is increasingly used as the basis for policy-making, and the findings of this project will help elaborate the complex processes whereby new knowledge gets translated into policy commitments.

Research collaborations

My experience at the Epigenomics of Common Disease conference made it clear just how broad the field is, how many different communities and research traditions need to communicate - and in some cases closely collaborate - to produce the new knowledge that underlies the headlines in the newspapers and the rhetorical references to ‘epigenetics’ in parliament.

Talking to researchers involved in epigenetics

One of the most important aspects of this project involves speaking with scientists involved in epigenetic research. I am in the process of interviewing scientists working in (and with) epigenetics, asking about their scientific backgrounds, their collaboration with other disciplines, their expectations for epigenetic research and its potential impact on human health, and their experiences of engaging with media representations of epigenetics.

Having been at the conference, and having seen presentations ranging from explorations of fundamental molecular biology, through experimental animal models, to the use of epigenetic data in long-term human cohort studies, I am keen to talk to researchers from as broad a range of disciplinary and experimental traditions as possible.

Get in touch

If you would be willing to contribute to this important project please do get in touch with me.

Andrew Bartlett


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