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In 2017, politics overshadowed science and scientists fought back

Scientists taking to the streets, enormous icebergs rupturing, a solar eclipse that captured the nation's attention and new insights into the workings of the universe. 2017 has been quite a year in science. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins William Brangham to look back and add some context.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been quite a year in the world of science. The headlines and images were powerful, among them, the rupture of enormous icebergs, scientists taking to the streets, the solar eclipse that captured the attention of the country, and new insights into the workings of the universe.

    William Brangham sat down with Miles O’Brien to get some perspective on it all.

    It’s part of our weekly segment, the Leading Edge.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what would you say is the most important science story of the year?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I think there’s little doubt, William, that the big science of the year is a political story, sort of political science.

    Scientists concerned about the Trump administration and its climate denial or climate skepticism took to the streets April 22, Earth Day. Thousands of them marched, concerned about the climate policy, but also environmental policies of the administration, also, frankly, concerned about their funding.

    And not long after the new administrator of the EPA came in, Scott Pruitt, a lot of evidence that they had reason to be concerned. There was a purge of scientists that received EPA funding, many of them associated with academic institutions, which made more room for corporate-sponsored science advising the Environmental Protection Agency.

    One of those purged scientists, Deborah Swackhamer from the University of Minnesota, told me she’s really concerned about the precedent.

  • Deborah Swackhamer:

    It almost feels like this is the first of a wave of potential actions that are going to further marginalize science advice, and therefore marginalize the science being done at EPA, marginalize the science being done in other government agencies, and then ultimately just there is going to be this very slow-motion snowball effect.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And then the big worry, in June, President Trump into the Rose Garden announcing that the U.S. — it is his decision for the U.S. to remove itself from the Paris climate accords.

    This is a big deal, 170 nations committing to limit greenhouse gas production to about two degrees of warming above industrial levels. The United States is the only nation that is not a party to Paris right now.

  • William Brangham:

     And this pushback and rejection of the climate science comes at a time when we seem to be getting more and more evidence of the severity of what climate change and global warming will do.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The evidence is stacking up.

    Climate change is not something in the future. It’s happening now. We could talk about the wildfires in California right now, certainly the hurricane season, epic, tragic, catastrophic in so many ways. In Puerto Rico, they’re still trying to come back from that.

    Not only is there a lot of science linking the severity of these storms to climate change. They are, after all, fueled by warm water. But there is a lot of studies that indicate that there is increased precipitation that comes along with these storms.

    Look what we saw in Houston.

    I spoke with a climate scientist at Columbia University, Radley Horton, about this.

  • Radley Horton:

    Even if the hurricane strengths stay the same, we will probably see more rainfall in those hurricanes in the future,because the upper oceans are going to be warmer, because that warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. That means that, even if the storm strength is the same, you will probably see a little more rainfall occurring during those powerful hurricanes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

     There was other evidence as well.

    In April, there was a very significant coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia that scientists said had clear-cut signs that climate change was a factor. Warm water affects the coral in very significant ways.

    And then, in July, one of the biggest icebergs ever seen was created. The Larsen Ice Sea Shelf fell off of Antarctica into the sea.

    Glaciologist Kelly Brunt gave us some perspective on that.

  • Kelly Brunt:

    Losing ice that represents roughly the state of Rhode Island in a month-and-a-half just far exceeded anybody’s expectations of what could happen and the time scale that it could happen in.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It was kind of like, we have to rethink things here a little bit. I mean, this was a wakeup call.

  • Kelly Brunt:

    This was absolutely a wakeup call.

  • William Brangham:

    Another concern that scientists have been raising is repeatedly is the threat of superbugs.

    These are bacteria that have not only developed some ability to fight back against our best antibiotics, but some of them are wholly resistant to those antibiotics.

  • Miles O’Brien:

     It’s really a big problem; 23,000 Americans now die each year because there are no antibiotics to help them, and very simple infections can kill you without antibiotics.

    The World Health Organization came out with a landmark study this year indicating this is of grave concern and there have to be some incentives put in place to find new antibiotics.

  • William Brangham:

    Financial incentives.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But it’s difficult because of the way antibiotics are prescribed. There’s not a lot of money in it for the big pharma companies.

    And scientists, frankly, are running out of the low-hanging fruit, the microbes that are there that make it possible to make antibiotics.

    But this is a big concern which we need to be watching.

  • William Brangham:

    And one of the biggest science events of the year certainly was the eclipse. We loved watching your coverage of that wonderful event.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Wish you could have been there, pal.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    That was big news. And then there was other — other news of the heavens. Tell us about that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, the eclipse was — it was great.

    I have been covering science for a long time. I once saw an annular eclipse, which allows a little ring of the sun to still exist. But this was a full eclipse.

    This — I happened to be in the path of the totality. I was prepared to be blase. And I have got to tell you, William, next time they come around, make sure you find yourself to one of these spots.

    It’s really a great experience, in the sense that it gives us understanding of how much we know about our — the space and astronomy, and yet how insignificant we are in some ways. There’s a certain dichotomy there.

    And maybe we’re not so alone. In February, the European Southern Observatory announced it had found a very Earth-like-looking system. The so-called TRAPPIST system seven planets around it, has a lot of indications that they might be Earth-like.

    Let’s listen to one of the scientists, Thomas Zurbuchen.

  • Thomas Zurbuchen:

    You can see in this illustration is that three of these planets marked in green are in the habitable zone, where liquid water can pool on the surface. In fact, with the right atmospheric conditions, there could be water on any of these planets.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And, as you know, William, on this planet, where you find liquid water, you always find life. So, that is a tantalizing clue. Scientists haven’t figured that one out yet.

    Now for the big scientific, purely scientific event of the year, you have to look at the collision of two neutron stars that was recorded in two novel ways, capturing their gravitational waves, as well as traditional astronomy.

    Scientists had not witnessed one of those collisions of these very dense neutron stars. Why is that significant? Well, understanding it using both gravitational waves and traditional light astronomy gave them a way of further calibrating a lot of what Einstein first told us about the expansion of the universe.

    They also theorize that these collisions are what created a lot of the heavy elements, including gold and platinum, for example. Scientists estimated that this collision generated more than an octillion dollars worth of gold. That’s one with 27 zeros.

    The problem is, it’s about 130 million light years away.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, the prospecting prospects, if you will, are not so great.

    The scientists, however, that are responsible for this are the odds-on favorite down the road to win a Nobel Prize, William.

  • William Brangham:

     Miles O’Brien, such fascinating stuff. Thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You’re welcome.

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