In 1989 when I started graduate school, the importance of public communication was far from my mind. As a young scientist, I, like many others, was overwhelmed simply trying to acquire knowledge in my field, learn how to create knowledge as a researcher, and communicate it to my peers.
In 1989 also received my first e-mail account. "Cloud computing" involved logging into a Cray Y-MP at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a "supercomputer" that at the time was lightning fast, but provided about as many computations per second as today's smart phones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The newspaper was still a thing. There was no Fox News. That bears repeating. There was no Fox News. The Immigration Act of 1990, which resulted in more immigrants being admitted to the U.S. in the 1990s than any single prior decade, passed with bipartisan support in the Senate 89-9 and in the house 264-118.
It was a different time.
Amongst the areas I received little to no training for in graduate school was public communication. I never took a formal class in this area. At the time, public communication usually meant doing interviews with a science reporter or specialist from a newspaper, TV station, or radio station. My advisor spent a great deal of time doing these interviews, so I did gain one important lesson and that was the importance of communicating to the public.
Fast forward to today and you find a massively transformed media environment, a highly polarized electorate and congress, and an invisible virus that poses the greatest challenge to our country since World War II. We are fighting a war not only against a virus, but also against misinformation and anti-intellectualism.
Some words of advice for the young scientists out there. I don't know how to win this war, but retreating and leaving a vacuum definitely seems like a losing strategy. We need you and in the future, society will need you even more. First, seek opportunities to learn as much as you can about science communication, interacting with the public, and communicating with congress, politicians, and leaders in fields outside of science. Second, remember that science is an endeavor in which truth and honesty are critical for success. Commit yourself to accuracy. Think "what would Mr. Spock do." Third, be cognizant of the limits of your expertise and that of your discipline. Knowledge of what you don't know is often more valuable than knowledge of what you do know. Finally, learn how to avoid getting into a mud-wrestling match with a snake. There are "political animals" out there who are ruthless and will do all they can to discredit you or your profession. Do not fear these ruffians, but prepare for dealing them.
Do these things and when you sit in the hot seat, remember that the scientific community is there with you.