As 2005 winds down to a close, scientists and editors are putting together their lists of the year's top science stories, and it’s clear that one major theme is the intersection — or downright car crash — between science and sociopolitical stands.
After all, this was the year when a top scientist was celebrated for cloning a dog and creating tailor-made embryonic stem cells — and then wound up hospitalized for exhaustion, amid a raging debate over bioethics. This was the year in which there was not just one, but two sets of hearings that merited comparison to the "monkey trial" of 1925. This was the year in which members of Congress took positions on brain death and when every month seemed to bring some new worry over severe weather or a global pandemic.
The developments of the past year show that the "accepted wisdom" on science isn't as quickly or as widely accepted as perhaps it once was — partly because of a skeptical political climate, and partly because the Internet provides wider access for dissenting views. Those societal challenges are sparking the rise of a new breed of scientists: media-savvy folk who aren't afraid to join the fray themselves.
One of those folk is Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies as well as a co-founder of the RealClimate Web log. In its year-end roundup, Seed magazine selected Schmidt as one of 15 "icons" who has shaped the global conversation about science over the past year.
Schmidt told MSNBC.com that the RealClimate blog "seemed like such a perfect fit with the kinds of things that I was having to talk about with journalists and friends and other people who aren't necessarily scientists."
Schmidt and his co-bloggers get into the nitty-gritty of climate research, interacting earnestly with fans as well as foes in long strings of reference-rich commentary. It's not an approach meant to attract a mass audience or stir a political movement — and Schmidt doesn't mean it to be.
"What I think is more doable and more achievable is getting to the point where the media and maybe politicians would have a more direct line to what the scientific consensus on an issue is, or whether there's a consensus at all. Sometimes there is no consensus," he said. "But where there is a consensus, I think it's important that the media be able to deal with that in a way that takes you out of the 'on the one side ... on the other side' style of journalism, because I think that confuses the public to a large degree."
That interplay between science and society is what Seed was going after in its year-end review, said Adam Bly, the magazine's founder and editor-in-chief. Among the other honorees are Jonathan Farley, a mathematician and counterterrorism consultant; Alex Deghan, a biologist who worked as an adviser in post-Saddam Iraq; and science-minded creative types like novelist Carrie Tiffany and artist Justine Cooper.
"The people we selected as the revolutionary minds of 2005 are not just scientists in a 20th-century sense," Bly told MSNBC.com. "They're connecting their ideas and their research with the broader public more so than might be the case with a 20th-century definition."
The social implications of science also played a big part in the selection of the Scientific American 50 — a year-end roundup of notables assembled by the 160-year-old magazine.
"We're trying to recognize the people and the organizations that we think are showing real leadership in advancing technology in constructive ways," said John Rennie, Scientific American's editor-in-chief, John Rennie.
Business, policy and research
The selections span the worlds in business, policy and research. In two of those three categories, the top leaders are being recognized for their contributions to the infrastructure of innovation, rather than scientific breakthroughs in the traditional sense:
- Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin were recognized as business leaders of the year for revolutionizing information technology — and profiting richly in the process.
- Norwegian engineer/entrepreneur Fred Kavli was named policy leader of the year for starting up the Kavli Foundation, which funds basic research as well as a trio of $1 million science prizes.
The other top honoree could well serve as the poster child for this year's clash between science and society: South Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang. When you consider the top science-related controversies of 2005, the ups and downs surrounding Hwang, Scientific American's research leader of the year, would have to rank at the top.
Until a couple of months ago, Woo Suk Hwang was riding a wave of adulation — and at times scientific envy — over his lab's achievements in the field of stem cells and cloning. Trained as a veterinarian, Hwang led the research team behind the first cloned dog , an Afghan hound named Snuppy.
But his work with human embryonic stem cells created even more buzz: Back in 2004, Hwang's team announced that they had successfully brought a cloned human embryo far enough along to extract stem cells — the type of cell that has the most capacity to regenerate worn-out or damaged body tissues.
In May of this year, Hwang announced that he was able to go even further by customizing stem cells with the genetic coding from donors who suffered from spinal-cord injury or other maladies. The cloning achievement heightened the debate over U.S. competitiveness in stem cell research, as well as ethical questions raised by the prospect of human cloning.
Even then, there was yet another ethical issue hanging in the background: allegations that some of Hwang's female subordinates had contributed their own eggs to the research effort. That practice would be frowned upon by most scientists, because of fears about subtle coercion to go through a procedure that carries some medical risk.
Finally, in November, Hwang's chief American collaborator broke with him over what he saw as an ethical breach. South Korean journalists confirmed that junior researchers had indeed donated eggs, though apparently without Hwang's knowledge. It also came out that some women had been paid for their donated eggs — a practice that wasn't illegal at the time but has since been banned in Korea.
Two fronts in the culture war
The turnabout sparked "we-told-you-so" comments from the opposing side in the culture war over human embryonic stem cell research. Meanwhile, many South Koreans saw the criticism of Hwang as an attack on their own culture. Hundreds attended pro-Hwang rallies outside Korean news outlets, and more than 1,000 women signed up to donate their own eggs in a sign of solidarity.
This week, Scientific American's John Rennie sounded a bit regretful about the fact that the controversy over Hwang broke just as the magazine naming him research leader of the year was going to press. "There's exactly the kind of problem you didn't want to have happen," he told MSNBC.com.
For good or ill, the controversy seems likely to spark a new round of scrutiny over stem cell research, Rennie said.
"What's interesting is that there's a real division of opinion about what all this means," he said. "It shows that we probably need much more international agreement on what the standards for conducting this research are going to be."
The debates surrounding stem cells and cloning weren't the only ones where science ran up against society and politics, of course. The list could extend from A to Z — say, from AIDS to zero population growth. But if we're talking about 2005, these four issues could well round out the year's top five science-related social controversies:
- Darwin vs. design: A federal trial in Pennsylvania serves as a forum for the debate over whether public-school science classes should carve out a place for intelligent design, or ID — the idea that some aspects of biology are so complex that they are best explained as the handiwork of a designer. Mainstream scientists make a good showing , and pro-ID school board members are voted out (sparking some doomsaying from televangelist Pat Robertson). Meanwhile, mainstream scientists decide to stay away from the Kansas Board of Education's hearings on teaching evolution — and the board gives a statewide nod to ID .
- Wondering about wild weather: As hurricanes pummel the American Southeast, some scientists claim a linkage between global warming and storm intensity , while others scoff. Also during 2005, the Kyoto accord on greenhouse-gas emissions takes effect , while the United States goes its own way. By the end of the year, even some of those who signed the Kyoto pact are having second thoughts about following through on the process.
- How far will bird flu fly? A deadly strain of influenza makes the jump from birds to humans, killing scores of people in Asia and setting off alarm bells around the world. Public health officials say the United States is unprepared for a pandemic , but they are also concerned about unjustified panic . Will the crisis sizzle or fizzle? Stay tuned in 2006.
- The soul of the brain: The plight of long-comatose patient Terri Schiavo sparks a national debate over end-of-life issues. Scientists use brain-scanning technology to link abstract thought to measurable brain chemistry and blood flow. Some researchers are even implanting human neurons in mouse brains . All these advances potentially raise questions about what it means to be "brain-dead," and what it means to be a thinking human.
The original version of this story mischaracterized the genesis of RealClimate.org. Founding contributors to the Web site include Gavin Schmidt as well as Michael Mann, Stefan Rahmstorf, Rasmus Benestad, Caspar Ammann, Ray Bradley, William Connolley, Eric Steig and Amy Clement.
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