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2005: The Year in Science

January 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: On a number of fronts, 2005 was year in which science played an important role in stories capturing national and international attention. The record hurricane season raised new questions about climate change.

Public health officials raised concerns and some anxieties over potential bird flu pandemic, and a still-unfolding fraud scandal is rocking the world of stem cell research.

As 2006 begins, we assess where these matters stand with two people whose job it is to sort through and explain science news. John Rennie, editor of Scientific American magazine, and Andrew Revkin, science writer for the New York Times.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, John Rennie, starting with you, let’s start with the stem cell scandal. We’ve heard so much in recent years about the scientific promise of stem cells on the one hand and the ethical dilemmas they raise on the other. How important is this fraud story to the field of stem cell research?

JOHN RENNIE: Well, it’s really a gigantic scandal and I think it’s going to be a while before we see the magnitude of the impact. But I don’t think anybody doubts that this is a real landmine going on underneath the field.

I should say that almost nobody the scientific area still seems to doubt that the fundamental science of stem cells is still very solid and that eventually this should be pay off in all kinds of great therapies and treatments.

But the fact is that this has brought right to the front again all these problems about the ethics and, of course, even just the question of where we stand in actually being able to turn stem cells into actual therapies.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Andrew Revkin, the case also would seem to raise questions about the credibility of reporting about science and how much people can know what’s true and what they read. Are you concerned about that?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, there’s two layers there; one is the journalists themselves that publish papers and the other is, of course, all of us. And it’s a very tough situation where you have layers of review that are supposed to catch — control sustained quality and make sure that things like this don’t happen.

But in this world, we have so much input, there’s so much globalization of science, the journals have tons that they’re trying to review. The journals themselves have a tendency to favor the thing that’s sort of juicy. Obviously stem cells are newsworthy and so they know a lot of people like the New York Times and Scientific American will be reporting on stories that are germane to everybody out there.

So they tend to maybe pay more attention to something that looks like a big development in a field like that. I’m not so sure that sometimes — I don’t think people are letting their guard down because they’re so carried away by the promise there, but it’s certainly — the bigger the development, the more scrutiny that needs to be made of whether it really holds up.

JOHN RENNIE: If I can say that really this is a perfect of example of in a sense the way the science is supposed to work. If there are things that are wrong with the reports that are showing up in the professional literature over time, science is supposed to uncover that, whether that’s a simple error or whether it’s actual outright fraud.

The amazing thing about the Dr. Hwang case is that since it does seem to be fraud, it’s hard to imagine how he or anyone else connected to it could have imagined that they could keep this fraud going since it would be subject to so much scrutiny.

ANDREW REVKIN: And the good news here, of course, is that the truth does out ultimately in situations like this. It’s amazing that someone had the audacity to think it wouldn’t eventually come out.

This couldn’t be sustained. That’s the good news about the scientific process and the journalistic process. Both really are self-correcting in the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew, staying with you on the issue of climate change, the hurricanes raised the issue once again and people were once again wondering how much what they’re seeing now in our daily lives is connected to longer-term climate change changes.

What — tell us what happened in terms of the research this year, where there interesting developments?

ANDREW REVKIN: There have been several papers that have pushed forward on the idea that the oceans contain more energy now and that you’re seeing a relationship between that, the heat buildup in the oceans, and the severity of hurricanes, not the frequency but the severity.

But those studies, the studies that came out this year are very preliminary and even the authors of them still say that largely it’s too soon to know whether any particular hurricane or any particular super season like the one we just — are still engaged in because of Beta is a function of this human influence of on climate. So it’s still a probabilistic thing.

Everyone still harks back to the example that Jim Hanson, a NASA scientist, used all the way back in 1988. He said “The thing to pay attention to here is that we’re loading the dice.” It’s a statistical shift you’re going to see over time. There won’t be some day you’ll wake up and read the New York Times or see on the network news you know, it’s a closed case today. It’s a statistical shift that will become evident over time that we’ve entered a new kind of a realm that’s outside the bounds of what we thought nature could throw at us. We’re still in the murk as far as that goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, John, of course, the politics of global climate change continues. At year’s end, there was another international conference. Where do things stand?

JOHN RENNIE: Unfortunately, things don’t stand very differently from where they were much earlier in the year. It’s very good that at this Montreal meeting you referred to the various nations that were participating generally agreed that they were going to start to try to think of how they were going to regulate their carbon dioxide releases out after 2012.

The first portion of the treaty had regulated time up to that. But still, the United States is not really joining in with this effort and until it does, that is a major liability for any global effort to try to control the greenhouse gas releases.

ANDREW REVKIN: In Montreal the one thing I saw while I was covering the meeting there for the last five days, those pivotal days when the senior officials really kind of knock heads was there were about 500 young people there, most sort of 20-somethings and college students, who were starting to really press these people in the suits — the diplomats — and say, “You’re hijacking our future. You’re discounting future risks in favor of what you estimate to be current costs of acting to curb carbon.”

And their message, I think, was felt a little bit. There’s pressure growing. Even China, and it isn’t just the U.S. who’s sitting on the sidelines, it’s the big industrializing countries, the ones that will be dominating greenhouse gas emissions in a couple decades, they’re waiting, too.

And there’s this kind of standoff thing going on where the U.S. is saying “We’re not going to move until you guys move.” And China says, “Well, we’re in the same game.” But they’re all feeling a little bit more pressure, I think.

And the science, of course, the science case has just been building steadily. It is still that sort of roll of the dice kind of argument. So it’s not a stark sudden emergency.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you now about avian flu because it’s a very interesting one to me because it seems to on the one hand there are some very real — real-world consequences, obviously, being put forward to people.

On the other hand, there was an issue during the year of whether there was some hype, some hysteria. People aren’t quite sure how to react to it. Where do we stand on that starting with you, John?

JOHN RENNIE: Back in November, Scientific American did a special report and we tried to review a lot of this. And the fact is, if you talk to the world’s public health officials, they take the problem of bird flu, of a pandemic human flu as one of the most pressing public health matters to be considered around the world because the stakes are tremendous.

In the worst case you could be looking at maybe tens of millions of people who would die around the world. Now, you can always worry about the fact that, well, where is this flu? How come we’re not all sick with it yet?

The flu is always there. It comes back. The epidemiologists we talked to said that basically a human pandemic is basically inevitable. Whether or not it comes out of the bird flu that we’re looking at now, that’s something only time will tell, but we have to really prepare on a global level to try to make sure we do meet the next big human pandemic like the ones that we’ve seen back in 1968 or, worse, back in 1919.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew, how do you think people should look at this?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, it’s — I think John has it right. It’s a big concern and the people who know the most about the epidemiology, the ecology of the flu virus know that it is essentially an inevitability — especially in a globalizing world, you have so much trans-mobility you have so many people, you have an urbanizing world, more and more people are living in cities than ever before, and so the spread, the speed of this kind of thing can go in a way that really is scary for public health officials.

And that gets back ultimately to these most basic things, the things that need to happen are surveillance, communication– meaning that some lab out in Vietnam has to be communicating to the World Health Organization and the rest of that infrastructure so that you catch things as quickly as possible.

But the fundamental ecology is there. You have intensive agriculture in Asia involving all kinds of animals and people living in close quarters so you have all this mixing going on. And numbers just speak in a way that’s not very encouraging in the long run. So preparedness is the key.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, John, I saw just yesterday Julie Gerberding of the CDC was on television talking about how some progress is being made but there are still all kinds of problems with the amount of the vaccine, questions about the delivery.

This question of public health and sort of reaching the public was such a potential catastrophe, do you expect to see that going on through the coming year? Is that kind of public response and public education, I guess, is the way to put it –

JOHN RENNIE: I certainly hope so. You know, it’s very easy when you start to have the first outbreak of these sorts of bird flus and as we start to move into the traditional flu season it’s very easy for everybody, especially the politicians, to start to make this a high priority and pay attention to it.

The real danger is that as this flu season comes and goes, that pretty soon people start thinking about other things and the issue of flu preparation starts to drop off the top of everybody’s set of priorities.

You have to hope that people are going to keep pushing for that. It is very important that we keep working on new technologies for developing new vaccines faster and distributing them better than we have in the past.

ANDREW REVKIN: One thing that’s so interesting about all the issues we’ve talked about so far — except maybe the fraud– is they show the increasing inter-linkage of the world.

The developed rich nations can’t ignore the public health picture in poorer nations because it’s in their own interest to be out there. They’re all about –you know, China, their greenhouse gas emissions matter as much as ours and so it gets everyone thinking in a common way. Maybe there’s some good in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Thank you John Rennie and Andrew Revkin for helping us look at some of the developments in science this past year.