COVID-19 looms large over the next year in science
Any look at the immediate future of science must start with the pandemic coronavirus. As the world enters the third year of COVID-19, researchers are striving for a handle on what the latest variant of concern, Omicron, may mean for the pandemic’s trajectory. Given the sheer number of infections globally, further variants are likely to arise in 2022. Because a large part of the global population now has some level of immunity from vaccines or infection, scientists are bracing for variants much better at evading human immune responses. Whether vaccines must be adapted is still unclear. At the same time, scientists are developing a new generation of vaccines that may give broader immunity or elicit a stronger response in the mucosae of the respiratory tract. In 2022, the world could also begin to see the impact of oral antiviral drugs targeting SARS-CoV-2, which could reduce stress on health systems by reducing deaths and the number of people who need hospitalization. Researchers will look to crack the mysteries of Long Covid, in which people experience debilitating symptoms weeks or months after their infection clears. And as global vaccine supplies increase, a key question will be whether poor countries can play catchup and get large swaths of their populations immunized. In the rest of this section, Science’s news staff forecasts other areas of research and policy likely to make headlines in the coming year.
U.S. redefines research security
Congress and the White House could soon finalize legislation and regulations designed to balance openness and national security in the funding of academic research. With U.S. policymakers worried that federal research dollars could fuel technological advances in China, Congress appears ready to ban federally funded scientists from participating in its foreign talent recruitment programs and to tighten oversight of any type of research support from that economic giant. Several U.S. scientists have already been accused of failing to disclose their ties to China, and the outcome of their trials could determine the fate of the government’s China Initiative, a 3-year-old law enforcement effort that critics say has unfairly targeted scientists of Chinese descent and criminalized bookkeeping errors.
Ion beam to conjure rare nuclei
The fleeting atomic nuclei normally forged only in stellar explosions will find a home on Earth after the $730 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) fires up at Michigan State University. The world’s most powerful ion source, the linear accelerator can fire any nucleus—from hydrogen’s single proton to uranium atoms’ massive core—into targets to produce new, unstable nuclei. It aims to yield 80% of all theoretically possible isotopes, including more than 1000 that have never been observed. With the FRIB, physicists hope to bolster their understanding of the structure of nuclei, decipher how stellar explosions produce heavy elements, and search for new forces of nature.
China debuts exascale computers
In 2022, China is expected to demonstrate the world’s two fastest and most powerful computers, which recent reports indicate have surpassed a long-sought performance milestone. At a supercomputing conference in late November, news emerged that China has built the first “exascale” supercomputers, able to carry out more than 1 quintillion (1018) calculations per second. China has yet to officially announce the machines, for reasons that remain unclear. And details about their performance have yet to appear on the TOP500 list of supercomputers, which ranks the world’s top machines based on common benchmarks. But according to technology watchers, the new supercomputing champs are Sunway Computer Co.’s OceanLight and the National Supercomputing Center’s Tianhe-3. Installation of what will be the first U.S. exascale computer, Frontier, is underway at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; it is slated to come online in 2022. Exascale supercomputers are expected to enable the marriage of artificial intelligence with massive data sets, transforming fields such as personalized medicine and materials discovery and generating more realistic models of climate change and the accelerating expansion of the universe.
Bevy of landers heads for Moon
Fifty years after humans last set foot on the Moon, robotic missions are returning en masse—and reviving dreams of human exploration. Following successful Chinese rover landings, three NASA-funded robotic landers, developed by small startups, will launch in 2022, and they could be joined by probes from Russia, Japan, and India. NASA’s program has two purposes: to conduct research, especially on the extent and availability of the Moon’s trace water, and to pave the way for human exploration by cheaply delivering payloads to the dusty surface. The coming year will also mark the first orbital launches for two mammoth rockets capable of taking astronauts and heavy payloads to the Moon and beyond: NASA’s overdue and costly Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Starship.
U.N. panel to tackle pollution?
The United Nations Environment Assembly is set to vote in February 2022 on a proposal to create a scientific advisory body to study the risks of chemical pollution and waste, modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations already has several conventions on certain types of pollution, such as mercury and persistent organic chemicals. But proponents of the new panel say there’s a need for broad assessments to help policymakers spot emerging problems and identify research needs. More than 1800 scientists have signed a petition of support to be presented at the assembly.
Listening for spiraling black holes
Gravitational wave detectors have registered the collisions of star-size black holes, but scientists are also mounting a different kind of search for bigger prey. In 2022, they hope to have enough data to clearly discern the low-frequency rumble of gravitational waves from pairs of supermassive black holes, with masses billions of times that of the Sun, as they spiral toward merger. To detect the spiraling pairs, observers train large radio telescopes on dozens of pulsars—collapsed stars emitting radio beams that, as the pulsar spins, appear as pulses with clocklike regularity. Tiny variations in the beats would signal passing gravitational waves that stretch the space between the pulsars and Earth. Although these pulsar timing arrays cannot pinpoint individual black hole binaries, teams in Europe and North America say their arrays have detected a faint signal that may be the background rumbling of spiraling pairs across the universe.
U.S. research innovators launch
The two biggest U.S. research agencies are poised to create units that would implement congressional mandates to accelerate practical discoveries. The National Institutes of Health could get up to $3 billion in 2022 to stand up an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health that would fund “breakthrough” approaches to treating a host of diseases. The National Science Foundation could get up to half that amount for a new technology directorate that would focus on speeding up the commercial application of academic research funded by NSF’s ongoing programs. However, those increases could shrink—or even disappear—if lawmakers extend a freeze on all federal agency budgets, now in place until at least mid-February 2022, for the rest of the fiscal year.
Biodiversity pact to get stronger
Safeguards for endangered species could get a boost if nations adopt a new framework for the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be in effect until 2050. Under a plan developed by negotiators for a meeting in 2022 in China, the 196 nations involved would seek to expand protection of natural ecosystems, emphasize sustainability, ensure that profits from using genetic resources are shared equitably, and raise at least $700 million by 2030 to fund these efforts. Targets include conserving 30% of the land and sea; reducing the spread of invasive species; halving the world’s pollution, including reducing pesticide use by two-thirds and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste; and increasing city dwellers’ access to “green and blue” spaces. The new plan aims to improve on a previous one, adopted in 2010, that set goals for 2020, which were not completely met. New approaches include establishing ways to monitor and report progress toward protecting species and ecosystems and doing more to involve stakeholders, such as Indigenous people, in making decisions.
China moves to allow GM crops
China will likely approve the first commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans, under proposed revisions to field trial and safety requirements unveiled in November. GM corn seeds could be on the market by the end of 2022. Currently, papaya is the only GM plant for human consumption approved for production within China. GM cotton is widely cultivated, and GM poplar is also available. China has funded research on GM corn and soybeans for more than 10 years, but public opposition and official caution kept the plants in the lab. The country imports large quantities of GM corn and soybeans for use in processed food and animal feed, which has led to calls from government officials to relax restrictions on growing GM varieties domestically. The government is unlikely to allow commercialization of GM rice soon because China is self-sufficient in the grain and consumers are wary about modifications to the country’s most important staple food.
Methane hunter to orbit
At November’s climate summit in Glasgow, U.K., world leaders made a commitment to cut their emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 30% by 2030. But to verify whether those cuts actually happen, a new generation of satellites targeting greenhouse gas emissions will begin to reach orbit in 2022. One is MethaneSAT, set for launch in October and developed by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit climate advocacy group. It is expected to sharpen the ability to detect methane plumes from sources such as rice paddies and leaking pipelines. Soon after, it will be joined by two satellites developed by the nonprofit Carbon Mapper project, targeting the world’s worst emitters—not just of methane, but also of carbon dioxide, the primary gas driving global warming.
Malaria vaccine arrives in Africa
In 2022 for the first time, countries across Africa will be able to use a vaccine to protect children against malaria, which still kills more than 260,000 of those under the age of 5 there each year. The RTS,S vaccine, in development for 3 decades, finally received approval from the World Health Organization in October, and in December, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said it would spend more than $155 million buying the vaccine and supporting its rollout through 2025. The vaccine offers imperfect protection, lowering rates of hospitalization for severe malaria by about 30%. But in initial trials, it reached many children who don’t sleep under bed nets and are particularly vulnerable. Another study demonstrated that it is especially effective when combined with antimalaria medication given prophylactically during the high-risk rainy season. Researchers and public health advocates will carefully track where the vaccine is used and what impact it has on malaria morbidity and mortality. Scientists have yet to develop any vaccines against the different species of parasites that cause malaria outside sub-Saharan Africa.