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By Amanda Johnson

Amanda Johnson-finalI’m a runner, a healthy cook, a Ph.D. biologist, and I eat genetically modified (GM) foods.

It’s not that I seek out tortillas made with genetically modified organism (GMO) corn, but I don’t avoid them. I’ve studied the data, and I’m satisfied that GMOs are safe.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center shows I’m in good company among my fellow scientists: 88 percent view GM foods as safe to eat. But the general public is not with us at all on this one—only 37 percent consider GM foods to be safe to eat.

As scientists, we’re able to get up close and personal with data that shows vaccines are safe and that climate change is real and caused by human activity. We understand how induced nuclear fission creates a reliable source of energy. But according to Pew’s Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society, these are just a few of the science-related topics where scientists and the general public see things very differently.

That gap could be due to a poor understanding of science or pure skepticism. Either way, it’s up to us as scientists to turn it around. It’s our duty to communicate the value of research and data in evaluating the world around us.

There’s been a tendency as of late to keep scientific discoveries private. Keep your work secret or a competitor may steal it. Maintain key journals and publications behind a firewall and charge steep subscription rates. It takes the joy out of learning, and sharing the science with people who might benefit from it.

Regardless of the significance of our experiments or data, we all have something to share with others. We’re trained to think critically and analytically and to have an opinion about published data. We can put that expertise to work outside the lab when we speak at the neighborhood school or testify at a city council meeting. By making ourselves and our work more approachable we contribute to a more science-savvy community.

I once asked a group of sixth graders to tell me what a scientist looks like. The kids listed words that essentially described Albert Einstein—an older man, in a lab coat, probably wearing goggles, someone very distant from their world. When I revealed that I am a scientist—a young woman and daughter of their teacher—I watched their expressions change. They drew closer and listened closely, because I was someone they could relate to.

Sure, it’s rewarding to present at a prestigious scientific meeting, to gain the attention and respect of peers. But we have the power to impact the community as well, and to encourage their enthusiasm for science. If we want people to respect and care about our work—and to garner support to pay for it—we must come out from behind the lab bench and tell people about it.

Amanda Johnson, Ph.D., is a scientific advisor at Spectrum, a health and science communications firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. Johnson earned her doctorate at the University of California San Diego, and has experience as a bench researcher and a teacher.