Incessant political turmoil in the United Kingdom, United States, and other nations will likely last well into the new year, complicating many researchers’ work. The U.K. election last month made the country’s departure from the European Union a near-certainty, and its scientists now face losing EU science grants and scientific collaborators. In the United States, a presidential election in November will determine the role of scientists in future policy deliberations; many experts on climate change and other environmental issues assert that the Trump administration has ignored scientific evidence. In this section, Science’s news staff forecasts other areas of policy and research likely to make news this year amid the chaos, from dark matter detectors to new efforts to rein in loss of species.
New goals for saving biodiversity
This year will see an attempt to revitalize the ambitious Aichi Biodiversity Targets, named for the city in Japan where they were negotiated. Since they were approved 10 years ago, there has been little to no progress in meeting most of those 20 goals, such as preventing the decline of endangered species. That alarming situation was highlighted last year in a major scientific assessment by another organization, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. But in October, nations will have a chance to try to set a more effective course when they meet in Kunming, China, to review and revise the Convention on Biological Diversity, the world’s flagship conservation pact.
Crunch time for climate policy
The politics of climate change faces crucial moments this year. The Trump administration’s opposition to regulations reducing fossil fuel emissions has emerged as a primary talking point for the president’s Democratic challengers. One day after the U.S. presidential election on 3 November, the country, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is set to leave the Paris climate accord, although a Democratic president could quickly rejoin after taking office in 2021. Less than 1 week later, the United Nations will convene in Glasgow, U.K., for its most important climate summit since 2015, where nations are expected to increase their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions—even though they are behind on meeting existing ones. Without stepped-up efforts, there is little hope the world can keep future warming below 2°C, the level scientists forecast will produce catastrophic damage to human communities and ecosystems.
Counting on the census
The U.S. government has conducted a decennial census since 1790. But the 2020 census that kicks off on 1 April faces unprecedented political challenges. Although civil rights groups won a fight to block a question about citizenship that the Trump administration wanted to add, it has ordered the Census Bureau to generate the equivalent data using existing government records so that states can use the information when they redraw boundaries for federal and state elections. Researchers fear that assignment may not be doable, and that the political debate has further alienated those already hardest to count. Demographers also worry that the census’ use of a new way to protect respondents’ privacy could distort analyses of demographic trends. At stake are not only how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds are distributed each year, but also the integrity of the nation’s largest statistical agency.
CRISPR’s big clinical tests
The CRISPR gene-editing tool faces key tests this year of its promise to treat cancer and genetic diseases. A small U.S. clinical trial is using CRISPR to disable three genes in T cells that are then returned to a cancer patient’s body, an approach that could help these immune system soldiers stop malignant cells from growing and extend patients’ lives. More results may also come from separate CRISPR cancer trials in China. Other researchers are working to treat people with sickle cell disorder and thalassemia by using the DNA editor to turn on the gene for a fetal version of hemoglobin to compensate for a defective adult form of the oxygen-carrying protein; last fall, scientists reported success in two patients and in 2020 will present longer-term results for a larger group. Another clinical trial in the United States could show whether CRISPR improves vision in people with an inherited disorder that causes progressive blindness.
Proteins tell ancient tales
Ancient proteins will shed new light this year on the identity and behavior of humans and other animals that lived more than 1 million years ago. Proteins are more stable than DNA, and as analytical methods improve, researchers can apply them to understand more about older fossils lacking DNA, including the sex and age of remains of enigmatic ancient hominins. Most hominins are known by bones and teeth alone, and proteins could provide a new tool for sorting them in family trees and to identify fragments too small to classify. Although tooth enamel offers the best source of ancient proteins, researchers are also extracting them from bones and hair. In addition, proteins can reveal new information about artifacts made of plant and animal materials, and researchers hope this year to analyze parchment manuscripts and the beeswax once used to seal documents. Scientists are also analyzing residues on pots for more clues to whether early pastoralists in the steppelands of Mongolia, for example, drank camel or goat milk first—and what people living on the edge of the Roman Empire in England ate.
‘Foreign influence’ worries grow
The political debate over how to respond to China’s emergence as a scientific superpower is likely to intensify this year. In the United States, some federal agencies have banned their employees from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs—an approach that China has used to connect with thousands of scientists—to prevent disclosure of information that could damage national security and U.S. economic competitiveness. Two new bodies created by Congress will work to harmonize practices across federal agencies and chew over how best to balance openness and security. U.S. academic leaders are hoping to convince policymakers not to fence off certain types of research, which they say would throttle U.S. innovation. A new report to the National Science Foundation says teaching students and faculty members about acceptable and unacceptable behavior is a better approach.
Japan boosts neutrino efforts
Japan is expanding neutrino research to better understand properties of the phantom particles and the cosmic processes that produce them. This spring, scientists will increase the sensitivity of the 22-year-old Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory by doping water in its observation chamber with the rare-earth metal gadolinium. The detector will then watch for signals generated when neutrinos from supernovae hit the water, providing clues about the dynamics within those exploding stars. Japan’s legislature is expected to fund an even bigger step: construction of the 72 billion Japanese yen ($660 million) Hyper-Kamiokande. Ten times larger than its predecessor, it will capture that much more data about neutrinos emanating from the Sun, distant stars, and supernovae.
Dueling dark matter detectors
The race to detect hypothetical particles of dark matter—the invisible stuff that binds together the galaxies with its gravity—enters a new phase this year with the startup of two powerful new underground detectors. Since the 1980s, physicists have used ever bigger and more sensitive ones to search for so-called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), theorized to weigh 100 times as much as protons and to interact with other matter only through the feeble weak nuclear force. This year, the XENON-NT detector, which contains 8 tons of frigid liquid xenon, will turn on in the subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. At the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota, the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) detector, which contains 10 tons of liquid xenon, will also power up. If XENON-NT and the LZ see nothing in the next few years, dark matter hunters could push for bigger WIMP detectors or set their sights on other hypothesized forms of dark matter. The Italian lab’s future also remains uncertain, as former lab officials face prosecution for allegedly allowing contamination of local drinking water.
Making xenotransplants survive
The genome editor CRISPR is reinvigorating the beleaguered field of xenotransplantation, which aims to surgically replace human organs or tissues with ones harvested from animals such as pigs. Novel clinical trials of the strategy could launch this year. Xenotransplantation has long promised to alleviate a chronic shortage of human livers, hearts, and other organs. It could also provide corneas to cure blindness and insulin-producing islet cells to replace those destroyed by diabetes. But time and time again in earlier tests, human immune systems have quickly destroyed the foreign transplants. Recent CRISPR experiments have modified genes in pigs to prevent or dampen human immune responses to their tissue and have removed DNA from the porcine genome that could spawn potentially dangerous viruses in a person. Transplants from these edited pigs to monkeys, a key test of safety and efficacy before human trials, have demonstrated long-term viability in their new hosts.
Exascale computer to debut
This year, China is expected to win the race to build the world’s first exascale computer, capable of carrying out 1 billion billion (1018) calculations per second, also known as an exaflop. Just which supercomputer will be the first remains uncertain, as China has set up a competition between three institutions: the National Supercomputing Center of Tianjin, the National Supercomputing Center in Jinan, and Dawning Information Industry Co., a manufacturer also known as Sugon. The new Chinese supercomputers, and others to follow in the European Union, Japan, and the United States, will be used to analyze vast data sets from astronomical and genetic surveys, and will support the continued rise of artificial intelligence. Some computer scientists expected the exascale milestone to have come sooner; delays resulted in part from the need to develop energy efficient computer chips.
ALSO IN 2020
Alzheimer’s drug The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will decide whether to approve aducanumab, an antibody drug designed to bust the brain-clogging amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. The experimental treatment has shown mixed success in clinical trials.
Ocean conservation The United Nations intends to finish plans for a Decade of Ocean Science to begin in 2021. The goal is to coordinate work by scientists around the world to help improve ocean health. One expected emphasis is mapping more of the world’s vulnerable marine ecosystems and biodiversity hot spots and more of the ocean’s bottom, only about 4% of which has been charted in high resolution.
Stem cell funding California voters will decide in November whether to allocate $5.5 billion from bond sales to keep alive the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The funding agency was created through a $3 billion ballot initiative in 2004 to translate stem cell research into new therapies.
Curated and edited by Jeffrey Brainard.
- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News