Choppers on Mars and RNA jabs: the best scientific advances of 2021 – The Guardian

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Some of Australia’s most prominent researchers nominate the most surprising, important and inspiring scientific developments of the past 12 months
Last modified on Fri 24 Dec 2021 23.58 GMT
With all of the worrying news emerging from the fields of health and science this year, some of the incredible advances that occurred may have been overlooked. But there have been many weird and wonderful feats in the world of research.
Life-saving tests, treatments and vaccines were developed and rolled-out – including those led by Australian doctors – and a world-first malaria vaccine for children was endorsed by the World Health Organization. A new species of dinosaur was discovered in south-west Queensland, adding to our understanding about how they evolved. We learned from Nasa that the much-feared asteroid, Apophis, won’t hit Earth for at least 100 years, so that’s a relief.

Meanwhile, approval was given for the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescopes in Australia and South Africa, with hope that the two largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes, once built, will redefine our understanding of space.
Guardian Australia asked some of the leading experts in a range of fields to share the scientific advances they found most interesting, inspiring, or surprising this year. Among the doom and gloom, there is much progress, innovation and hope to celebrate.
President of the Australian Academy of Science, molecular biologist, and former chairman of CSL Limited
The development and the success of RNA-based vaccines has had enormous global impact during the past year. There’s enormous short-term success but it also opens up a lot of potential long-term opportunities in delivering RNA as a vaccine for emerging diseases and also as a means of developing new therapeutics to treat a whole range of disorders.
To get a new type of vaccine out there requires very big clinical trials because a crucial thing with a vaccine, of course, is safety.
RNA research has been going on for decades. The difficulty in translating that into practical use in the vaccine area has been because we’ve got lots of great vaccines for other diseases. If you’ve got great vaccines that work already, it’s very hard for a new vaccine to enter the market. That was one impediment to the practical development of RNA vaccines, which the pandemic suddenly produced a reason for, [because] we needed something new.”
Applied Antarctic ecologist and principal research scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division
Antarctica is a bellwether for climate change impacts, with recent evidence of ecosystem collapse and that a major ice shelf in west Antarctica may fail within the decade.
So for me, this year’s most exciting advance is not a discovery but solid investment in future Antarctic science, heralded by the arrival of Australia’s new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, the most advanced polar research vessel in the world, and the initiation of not one, but three new university-based Antarctic research initiatives.”
Medical virologist, Australian representative on the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of coronavirus, director of public health pathology at NSW Health.
From my point of view, the origins of Sars-CoV-2 has been the big story.
Knowing from where viruses and pandemics start is crucial to understanding the interactions between humans and animals, and how this is influenced by human behaviour, industrialisation, and climate change.
Then once a virus has entered humans, how human actions affect its spread – travel, mass gatherings, the medical system, access to health care and other actions. We need this knowledge to prepare for the next pandemic – rest assured, there will be another one!
This was then overlaid by the politics, to an extraordinary extent not seen before. Everyone was blaming each other for causing the pandemic, often to cover their own poor pandemic responses. This has led to secretiveness and suspicion, delay and obfuscation, denial and accusation. An investigation into the origins of a disease is core scientific and medical business – politics has made this an almost impossible task and has been depressingly ‘anti-science’.
It needs to be fixed.”
Director of the National Covid-19 Clinical Evidence taskforce, and Associate Professor at Cochrane Australia.
In both my personal and professional roles, it’s incredibly difficult to look past the incredibly rapid development of effective Covid-19 vaccines in terms of amazing scientific advances over the last couple of years.
But, in my other life I’m a wannabe astronaut, and I am completely astonished by Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter, which has made 18 successful flights on a whole other planet in 2021!
In a year when I’ve barely managed to leave my house, the ability to have helicopter flights on Mars seems even more like science fiction than it normally would.”
Professor of ocean and climate dynamics at the University of New South Wales, and co-founder of UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre
I think the most important finding that came out in 2021 is a study relating to ocean conditions around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which locks up in total about seven metres of global sea level. Lose the WAIS and hundreds of millions of people worldwide would be displaced. The WAIS is known to be the most vulnerable component of the Antarctic ice sheet system and uncertainty about future melt rates is one of the biggest unanswered questions in polar climate science.
The published ocean measurements were taken adjacent to Thwaites Glacier, which is the most rapidly changing outlet of the WAIS. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle, the study documents the first ever temperature, salinity and oxygen measurements at the Thwaites ice shelf front. The measurements revealed warm water impinging from all sides on what are known as ‘pinning points’ of the glacier – these are critical to ice-shelf stability.
This confirms what scientists have long been concerned about for the Thwaites Glacier; namely that warm water is driving melting at key pinning points. The location of the warm water shows that there is an increased risk of unpinning of the glacier and increased melt of the WAIS.”


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