Challenges won and lost by science in 2020

Challenges won and lost by science in 2020

In the year of the coronavirus, scientific goals are not lacking, inside and outside the pandemic. Here is what has been achieved in 2020 and which, on the other hand, will require more efforts, starting from the climate and equality in research

The science of 2020 had as its absolute protagonist a microbe that brought us to our knees. About a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a hair, made up of a protein envelope that contains about thirty genes, Sars-Cov-2 is now the most studied virus in history. Many successes, but also missteps, this year are linked to the novel coronavirus and the interdisciplinary effort to stop it.

But 2020 was another notable year for spaceflight, computing and technologies. greens . In the background, the climate crisis does not wait, but there are some positive news. Here is the balance of a year more difficult than others, even for science.

The global fight against Covid-19

(photo: National Cancer Institute / Unsplash) The risk of a new pandemic had been predicted, well before 2020. No, not by Bill Gates, but by those who study viruses. This awareness, however, was not exploited sufficiently, and the world found itself with its guard down (albeit in a very unequal way). If the crisis has found a large part of the world unprepared, important results have been achieved in record time in the fight against Covid-19.

The first Sars-Cov-2 genomic sequence was shared by Zhang Yongzhen's lab last January. Less than a year later, people are receiving their first emergency-cleared vaccines. Among these are also the first mRna vaccines in history. An undertaking that would have been impossible without substantial public funding. The resources allocated have made it possible to compress in a few months the tests necessary to establish the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and to manufacture the first stocks even before the green light.

They are the first real weapons against Covid- 19, because unfortunately the search for therapies so far has yielded limited results. Their impact, however, will not only depend on science and unknowns like the new variants. Logistic and strategic challenges aside, for immunization it will also be necessary to take care of the communication of this company. Not so much, or not only, for the noisy minority of so-called no vax, but because citizens have the right to be treated as adults. Institutions all over the world will have to prove that they are worthy of their trust, without paternalism.

Medicine in the shadow of the coronavirus

(Photo: Owen Pornillos, Barbie Ganser-Pornillos) Read more in the meantime, the position war against HIV. If the latest data tell us that infections tend to decline, too many diagnoses are late. The new pandemic could increase the already large inequalities in access to treatment between the richest and poorest countries, and we must not let our guard down. Fortunately, the WHO also records that so far the most vulnerable countries have managed the shock quite well. Laboratories dedicated to HIV and tuberculosis tests have adapted quickly to respond to the Covid emergency, and the interruptions to services for HIV positive people have been limited. Unfortunately, the vaccine is still missing. Testing of a candidate vaccine, which began in South Africa in 2016, was stopped in February because it didn't work. The same goes for the treatment: despite some promising news, mass therapy capable of eradicating the virus does not yet exist. Recent research that details the infection could open new avenues.

2020 has also seen wild polio disappear from the African continent. It means that the last of the naturally occurring strains has been declared eradicated (thus excluding the rare cases derived from the attenuated vaccine). Polio remains endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An important result, especially in a year where the new pandemic has slowed vaccination campaigns in several African countries.

The Crispr revolution continues

(image: Getty Images) In the year of the Nobel Prize to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, their Crispr / cas9 technology continues to prove itself as the Swiss army knife of biotechnology. From rapid tests for the coronavirus (in development by Doudna) to advanced therapies against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, genome editing gives us hope. Attention remains high on its possible abuse, as happened in the case of children with modified genomes born in 2019. In theory, the modification should have made them resistant to HIV, in practice the experiment had no ethical or medical basis. This year, new studies have confirmed the risks of unwanted and unexpected changes in the manipulation of human embryos.

Space is still for robots

The Perseverance rover, coming to Mars next spring . Illustration: NASA Space exploration with robotic probes has become so advanced that it is (almost) legitimate to wonder what astronauts are for. This year we landed again on an asteroid with the Nasa Osiris-Rex mission, and a cargo of lunar rocks was brought back to Earth by the Chinese Chang'e 5 mission. Hayabusa 2 also completed its main mission by dropping samples taken from the asteroid Ryugu to Earth. Fingers crossed for Perseverance, the new Martian rover that is now on its way to Mars to lend a hand to Curiosity (it also has a helicopter). On the route to the Red Planet also Hope, the orbital probe of Saudi Arabia, and Tianwen 1, with a Chinese lander and rover. Yet another postponement for the Exomars European rover, christened Rosalind Franklin. It was due to leave in July, we will talk about it again in 2022.

Preparations for human exploration

The Crew Dragon detaches from the historic launch pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center (image: SpaceX ) Also this year the astronauts have not gone beyond the orbital space station, but the big news is the replacement of the Shuttle, that is the capsule made in the USA Crew Dragon, developed by the private aerospace agency SpaceX. Tests have also begun with prototype reusable vehicles that promise to bring humans back to the moon and then finally to Mars. Now we also know that the first is richer in water than we thought, and that on the second there is a system of salt lakes that is hidden under the surface.

Speaking of extraterrestrial life, we were excited about the possible discovery of phosphine on Venus, but at the moment the data is still rather uncertain, and in any case it does not necessarily mean life. Astrobiology and radio astronomy in general this year also lose one of its symbols, the Arecibo radio telescope, which has been damaged beyond repair. These days, a potentially Seti signal picked up by Proxima Centauri makes the heart beat, but experience teaches us to wait. On the other hand, ESA's Gaia satellite is showing us the Milky Way at a level of detail never seen before.

The climate crisis does not wait

(photo: MyLoupe / Universal Images Group / Getty Images Lockdowns around the world have precipitated climate-altering emissions, but there is nothing to celebrate. The concentration of CO 2 in the atmosphere in 2020 is still record-breaking, as are the temperatures recorded. The pandemic does not serve to limit in the long term emissions period, nor to stop our dependence on fossil fuels, but there are some encouraging signs.

If the US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement this year, the new president has assured he will reverse the Furthermore, surprisingly, China has announced ambitious plans, which foresee the peak of national emissions by 2030. If words follow the facts, that is to say we start to act in the short term, the objectives of the Paris agreement could become reachable.

In addition to politics, technology also helps. Net of greenwashing, renewable energies are becoming increasingly popular, while at least the most polluting sources, such as coal, seem to be starting on the avenue of sunset. Of course it is still too little, too late, and we must be careful of those who would like to recycle the ever cheaper fossil fuels in the form of plastic. But let's try to see the glass half full: the energy transition advances. And if the dream of nuclear fusion comes true, all the better. For now, let's be satisfied with the results of the Borexino experiment, which showed us how it works in the Sun.

The frontiers of computing

The components of a quantum computer (Getty Images) At the end of 2019 Google had announced quantum supremacy: its Sycamore quantum computer, based on superconducting materials, had managed to quickly solve calculations impossible for traditional computers. The same processor this year was used to simulate a chemical reaction, that is, the configuration changes of an organic molecule of four atoms called diazine. While simulations like this are within the reach of traditional computers, it is the first time a quantum computer has succeeded in the feat, and paves the way for more complex simulations.

In 2020 Jiuzhang, another quantum computer has confirmed that quantum supremacy is possible by performing a calculation in 200 seconds that would take 600 million years to the fastest computers. Jiuzhang is based on photonics, so it uses principles other than Sycamore, demonstrating that there is no single path to quantum computing.

New achievements are also being celebrated for artificial intelligence. Aphafold, Deepmind's AI program (Google) has successfully predicted the 3d structure of a protein starting from the amino acids it is made of, beating the competition of the two-year Casp (Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction) competition. It still does not mean that we can throw away the previous techniques, but it seems the beginning of a revolution.

Artificial intelligence continues to conquer the world around us, and this requires attention. Not out of fear of the legendary singularity, ie the emergence of an intelligent machine, but because this technology in many areas has already proven to automate our prejudices, for example in facial recognition applications.

Le fragility of science

(photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) In February a team of Italian researchers from the Spallanzani Institute in Rome isolated one of the strains of the coronavirus, but what happened next reveals some major problems still to be solved . Hordes of politicians, in fact, hastened to celebrate the result by inflating its scope enormously as a research made in Italy. The reality, as the director of the Institute specified, is that the funds come from European tenders, because in Italy they touch the crumbs of research. As if that weren't enough, the leading scientists have often been defined as ladies, girls, angels of the virus, team in pink, and often called by first name. It happens in 2020, the year in which according to Nature female scientists in the world have sent fewer studies than men, probably because they are penalized compared to their colleagues in the work of caring for children.

Speaking of public research funding, during the summer, the proposal to double investments was launched, going from the current 0.5 of GDP to 1.1 by 2026, thus putting the country in the wake of Germany. It is the so-called Amaldi Plan, but the appeal does not seem to have breached yet.

The pandemic has greatly stimulated the use of preprints, i.e. the direct publication of draft studies, before peer review and publication in specialized magazines. The latter also accelerated publication times, giving priority to articles on the coronavirus. While preprints have speeded up knowledge sharing, a lot of questionable research has also ended up in this year's torrent of publications, but it must be said that even the current peer review mechanism is certainly not bombproof.

Is another world possible?

(photo: matejmo / Getty Images) At this juncture, many traditional publishers have also chosen to make the studies published on Covid immediately accessible for free. For supporters of open access, this choice, albeit temporary, proves the inadequacy of the current system. Search results should always be accessible to everyone, without the overpriced subscriptions. In Europe, Plan S promised to do just that by requiring open access publication for all publicly funded research. However, the road to redistribute access to research more equitably will still be long: Nature, for example, has set a fee of € 9,500 per study for researchers, which is unsustainable for many researchers. To get around the culture lockdown, it is easy to predict that in the near future many scientists will continue to use the pirated Sci-hub service, despite the illegality.

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