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Science in 2022: what to expect this year

Davide Castelvecchi tells us about some of the science events to look out for in 2022.

In this episode, Nature reporter Davide Castelvecchi joins us to talk about the big science events to look out for in 2022. We'll hear about vaccines, multiple Moon missions, the push to save biodiversity, and more.

News: The science events to watch for in 2022

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00008-7

Transcript

Davide Castelvecchi tells us about some of the science events to look out for in 2022.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hi, Benjamin from the Nature Podcast here. A very happy new year to you all. We’re going to ease ourselves into 2022 this week with a little bit of future-gazing at what the world of science might have in store for us over the next 12 months. Joining me to do so is Davide Castelvecchi, who has been compiling a list for Nature. Davide, hi.

Davide Castelvecchi

Hi, and happy new year to you, Ben.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, right back at you, Davide. Thank you so much for joining me today. Well, in this kind of look ahead then, I think it will be remiss of us not to start with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, now of course in its third year. At this time last year, I guess everyone was quite excited about the prospect of having vaccines available, but vaccines are also something that’s being looked at for 2022 as well. What’s going on in that space?

Davide Castelvecchi

Well, on the one hand, there are a lot of people, especially in low-income countries, who haven’t had a chance to get a vaccine yet. There were hopes, initially, that pharma companies would allow their patents to be suspended so that the vaccines could be produced in other countries as well, and that has only happened in a limited way. So, there’s a lot of work still to do there to expand the immunisation and also to keep track of the ever-evolving virus and the new variants that are coming out, and how the current vaccines will cover us from those variants and whether there will be new and more specific kinds of vaccines that will be needed.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, in your article you talk about vaccine developers having their sights on the next generation of vaccines.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, and this is something where, actually, the technology might also help to somewhat ameliorate the inequality across the world because the messenger RNA vaccines that have been prevalent so far are quite expensive to produce and they also require usually being stored at low temperatures. Whereas perhaps other technologies that researchers are working on, such as protein vaccines or DNA as opposed to RNA vaccines, could be both cheaper to produce and easier to store, so the distribution in low-income countries could be a lot easier that way.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And some of these vaccine platforms are being potentially looked at for other diseases as well.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, indeed. There’s hope that this boost in momentum and research and optimism in the world of vaccines might extend to other pathogens. Lyme disease is one. There’s clinical trials planned for a HIV vaccine, malaria vaccines. So, yeah, there’s reason to be hopeful.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Absolutely, Davide, and we keep our fingers crossed for good results there. But let’s maybe move on to another topic in your look ahead to 2022, and that is space and space exploration, space missions and what have you. 2021 was a big year for Mars exploration. We had a lot of missions going there. But 2022 looks like there’ll be a lot of missions going somewhere a lot closer to home.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, it’s quite astounding to see almost an armada of missions that are supposed to be heading for the Moon. Our favourite satellite will be targeted by, at my last count, five different national space agencies, each of which will send at least one if not two missions, and several private space companies as well.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, a veritable armada as you say then, but why this focus on the Moon in 2022?

Davide Castelvecchi

I think there is a lot of interest in part because NASA has this long-term investment plan, and then there’s just a general trend towards a global expansion of the space business with a lot of new countries. So, for example, we have South Korea entering the fray. The United Arab Emirates, which sent the mission to Mars that we’ve covered in the past, is now also contributing a rover to one of the small landers. Japan is planning to have its first lander on the Moon, and India, which has attempted a soft landing before and wasn’t successful, will try again.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And so, what are these missions trying to accomplish then when they get to the Moon?

Davide Castelvecchi

Well, in a lot of cases, these missions that are coming up this year are really about building capabilities, developing the knowhow and the technology. So, for example, the Japanese and South Korean missions are explicitly about learning how to do these things. And the two missions sent by NASA as well are really for setting the stage for the aims to establish a permanent space station orbiting the Moon and also to land astronauts again on the surface of the Moon. One in particular will be the inaugural mission for the new launch system that NASA ultimately plans to use for sending astronauts. So, I mean, most of these missions also have a science component. They do plan to collect data. But I would say that the emphasis here is on developing capabilities.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you say that NASA is looking to put a space station in orbit around the Moon, although that is some way off, but of course there is a space station that is being built right now.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, and it’s called Tiangong, and it’s being built by China. It is due to be completed this year, and it has more than 1,000 experiments lined up. Ultimately, it will also be paired up with a new space telescope, which will fly in the same orbit as the space station, so they will be accessible by the taikonauts who will be able to repair it an upgrade it, but that’s not due to fly for another couple of years, I should say.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Davide, let’s move on then. One of the things that you’ve included in your look ahead for 2022 is biodiversity. What’s going on there?

Davide Castelvecchi

There is a long-delayed convention on biological diversity that is supposed to take place in Kunming, China. This is an emerging crisis, with more than a million plant and animal species now considered at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat. And the original plan was to have this convention in 2020, and that was delayed because of the pandemic. The hope is that the global community will be able to establish new targets to address this problem. The original targets that were established in 2010 were mostly missed by the 2020 deadline that the previous convention had set.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And, Davide, of course, protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change are two things that are intimately linked, and last year’s COP26 was interesting in that respect because biodiversity is often overlooked at meetings like this. But at COP26, there were pledges to help things like deforestation and of course a lot of other targets and pledges were made too. But that was COP26. Now we’re thinking about the UN’s COP27 Climate Conference.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, that is planned for November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, so that would be the next round of UN climate talks, and this year we’ll see if the pledges made last year in Glasgow will be kept. They were pledges that disappointed a lot of people but also would go some way towards addressing the problem and, yes, one of the big questions here is can we stop and reverse deforestation? The other question is will countries follow up on their stated goals of reducing or eliminating subsidies for coal and gas, and we’ll see. Carbon emissions had seen a dip in 2020 due to the pandemic but then they already started rebounding in 2021, so they are already back going in the wrong direction. We’ll see what happens this year.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on to another topic then, and it’s one that you often come on the podcast to talk about, and that is, of course, physics, and you say that this year contains a big physics bonanza. What do you mean by that?

Davide Castelvecchi

Well, in some ways it’s a return of large experiments. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is restarting after several years of maintenance and work and also some substantial upgrades to its experiments, in particular the two experiments that people hope might still discover new particles. They’re called ATLAS and CMS.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, is that something that might be on the cards this year, or is it one of those ones where they’re going to start the machine up and it’s going to take a while to chew through all the data?

Davide Castelvecchi

It will certainly take a while because particle physics is really a numbers game. The good news is with these upgrades they’ll be able to produce more data and better data, and they will be able to test the equations of particle physics to ever-increasing detail. So far, physicists have been kind of disappointed that nature hasn’t really revealed any major new secrets following the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. So, it’s really in the tiny details and in the precision measurements that they’re hoping to find new physics.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, one more then, and this one is about a facility due to start operating in 2022 that will hopefully give researchers a little bit more of an understanding of the periodic table, I guess, so of the elements within it.

Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, so this is really a next-generation nuclear physics experiment. Some say it might double the number of known isotopes. We know now 118 elements, and for each of those elements, we know many isotopes – in some cases, dozens of them – and mapping the number of isotopes and their structures helps physicists to understand how, for example, supernova explosions give rise to new elements. We are made of stardust, right, and the majority of the elements that we’re made of didn’t come out straight of the Big Bang. They were forged in stars and supernova explosions through the fusing and breaking up and fattening up of atoms with neutrons and so on, and all these phenomena go through basically the entire map of existing or possible isotopes. So, this facility is called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams or FRIB. It will really be like a quantum leap in our ability to understand all these phenomena.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, understanding a little bit more about the stardust that we’re made of in 2022, Davide, that’s a nice place to leave it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Davide Castelvecchi

Thank you very much.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And, listeners, to stay up to date with all the latest developments from the world of science, head over to nature.com/news. I’ve been Benjamin Thompson. See you all next time.

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