10 January 2016
2015 was a year of phenomenal scientific breakthroughs and it saw the culmination of many decades of collaborations. At the 57th London International Youth Science Forum we spent a lot of time discussing the universal endeavour that is science and how we can use our science backgrounds to help guide future decisions. We even debated where the future of our scientific efforts should be focused and how the large expensive international collaborations lead to better quality downstream small level science.
Here’s what James North, Chief of Student Staff at LIYSF, has to say about the top scientific breakthroughs and highlights of 2015.
2015 also saw more of the planet protected than in any previous year. Most of this seems to have slipped under the media’s radar as large amounts of the protected areas are underwater. Britain, New Zealand, Chile and the USA have led the way and have all promised more than 100,000 square miles of marine reserves each. A fully protected marine reserve is the ‘gold standard’ for marine conservation as it means the area cannot be used for fishing, dumping, drilling and many other harmful activities. This marks a step-change in the attitudes of governments who have previously shown little regard for protecting our natural world especially if it conflicts with our own needs. Parliaments around the world finally seem to be putting the planet before profit, but some would argue they have left it too late.
CERN, one of the premier examples of large international collaboration, had another productive year. Following a refit, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) restarted at the highest power yet. An entirely new class of sub-atomic particles have been discovered and are known as pentaquarks. Pentaquarks have been theoretically supported for several years now, but this discovery at the LHC is the first experimental evidence for their existence.
Another fine example of the international community working together to unearth new evidence is the quest to determine our own evolutionary roots. In September 2015 paleoanthropologists working in South Africa found the remains of what is thought to be our most primitive ancestor yet, Homo Naledi. This hominid had a brain only the size of an orange, which along with other anatomical differences has led to questions from other teams of scientists as to whether it really is a true hominin or more of an australopith like the famous ‘Lucy’. The advancement of science once again has shown that, for as many questions as we are able to answer, we often end up asking many more as a result.
The ethical implications of our scientific endeavours must always be held at the heart of what we do and never more so than in the case of human genetics. Our ability to manipulate the blue-print to life has advanced more quickly than most people had ever thought possible. The student debate at LIYSF almost always features some ethical discussion. This year we inadvertently gave most of the session over to the question “should we slow down our progress in order to appreciate the implications of our actions better?”
Genetic editing had a game changing discovery recently with CRISPR being likened to the discovery of the Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in terms of what it will do to the field. Its big draw is actually the low cost associated which means labs everywhere, not just those with access to large grants, can use the technique. Only three years after the first publication utilizing this method, it has already been used to edit human embryos. One of the main concerns is that a tiny mistake in the design of the RNA guide could mean that a CRISPR designed to work in mice could also work in humans, meaning that a seemingly trivial mistake could expose researchers to the mutations they are trying to induce in their models. However, those using the technology say they are aware of the implications and have taken all the obligated precautions. This technology could speed up access to gene therapy for millions of people such as those with cystic fibrosis, so the question is, do the potential benefits that this technology will undoubtedly lead us to negate the risk?
In November, the world saw its leaders gather in Paris to discuss how to reduce and if possible repair the effects of climate change. Whilst no enforcements were put in place it seems to be the first time that leaders have all agreed that the weight of evidence is now too much to ignore. Most of the commitments made at the Kyoto discussions have been missed and many analysts blame the US and China for this, one saying that “as long as policymakers in Washington and Beijing didn’t put all their political capital behind the adoption of ambitious carbon-emission capping targets, the laudable efforts of other G20 governments often remained in the realm of pious wishes”. So far the message from Beijing and Washington is that both countries are absolutely committed to these new targets. President Obama has declared that the focus of his final stint in the Oval Office will be the environment and he seems to be set on pushing through the Paris agreement. He has already had one major success in this with getting legislation passed committing $3 billion to help developing nations cut their own emissions.
2015 was the year that in my opinion the world’s leaders finally acknowledged the role that science and engineering will play in patching up our broken planet, hopefully before it is too late. It will not be easy, but if the past has taught us anything, it is that our greatest minds often do their best work when humanity needs it the most.
We await in anticipation for another year of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and pushing the boundaries in terms of science, technology and engineering.
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