It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what the future holds for the scientific trends that dominate the headlines today. Instead, Quartz’s science team has compiled a list of science terms and concepts that can help you better understand social and political life in 2018.
Towards the end of 2017, the Donald Trump administration told a number of divisions of the US Department of Health and Human Services to avoid certain words and phrases in their proposals for 2018 budgets, in order to improve the chances of getting funding from a Republican-led Congress. Two of these phrases, “evidence-based” and “science-based,” seem so basic and integral to the scientific method that blackballing them seems patently absurd. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was told that the agency should instead use wording like, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” according to a budget analyst who spoke to the Washington Post.
To be clear: when something is described as “evidence-” or “science-based,” that doesn’t mean it should be immune from scrutiny. Science is inherently an iterative process, and “evidence” from 1998 might not be a good foundation for policy decisions in 2018. Maybe government experts’ time would be better spent trying to educate Congress, rather than shielding them from words they don’t understand. — Elijah Wolfson
“Vulnerable” is another term the Trump administration has discouraged the HHS from using. Practically, this one might be more important than “science-based,” “evidence-based,” or any of the other now-fraught words and terms. That’s because it’s the one that has historically been used with some regularity to set federal government agendas, design tax structures, and appropriate government funds.
What it actually means, though, is fairly vague. There is no single HHS definition for “vulnerable” and so it’s unclear what exactly the Trump administration is trying to strike from its health department requests. That said, it’s not hard to guess. The Trump White House and the Republican-led Congress have both worked to dismantle benefits for the poor and rights of discriminated-against demographics over the past year; the recently passed tax bill is just the latest example. In attempting to push the federal government’s health agencies into avoiding consideration of socioeconomic disparities in their policy documents, Trump and Republican lgislators are furthering what is ostensibly a “rich-people” agenda. — Elijah Wolfson
Since 1984, there has been an official funding program for collaborative scientific research across Europe, called the Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development. And since 1984, the United Kingdom has been part of that framework. However, with Brexit now underway, the framework—whose latest iteration, designed to run from 2014-2020, is called “Horizon 2020”—is on the verge of losing its third-wealthiest member, and the country with the most Horizon 2020 research participants.
Brexit will officially take place in 2019, and the parties involved have agreed to allow UK scientists to continue participation in Horizon 2020 until it ends in its eponymous year. What’s worth watching in the coming year, however, is the planning efforts for what comes next. They will have a major impact on the scientific-research landscape of the coming decade. — Elijah Wolfson
The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution
Specifically, section four. There’s nothing especially scientific about the text itself, which states:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
As Politico noted earlier this week, DC lawmakers are beginning to obsess over this piece of the constitution, because they believe medical science should inform major decisions about the future of a Trump presidency.
In December, Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee met with members of Congress to discuss Donald Trump’s mental state. Concerns have only grown in the wake of Trump’s strange tweet comparing (nonexistent) American and North Korean nuclear bomb buttons, and Michael Wolff’s explosive book Fire and Fury.
The Goldwater Rule, the American Psychiatric Association’s principle stating it’s unethical for psychiatrists to opine about public figures they have not examined, still stands. There’s also no current way for Congress to force a president to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, although he is due to have a physical early this year. A growing chorus of experts, Lee one of the strongest among those voices, now say Trump’s presidency is a pending danger, demanding an emergency evaluation. — Elijah Wolfson
A cell-cultured meat product is expected to jump from a Silicon Valley laboratory into the commercial market for the first time this year, marking the beginning of a new trend in high-tech food. Thanks to cellular agriculture—the production of food by growing cells under controlled lab conditions—scientists say they can replicate staples like meat, fish, and milk on a molecular level, without having to slaughter or rely on a live animal. This new type of food will be marketed as kinder to animals, better for the environment than conventional farming, and safer to eat.
The science behind these new foods has big backers. So-called “clean meat” startups count Bill Gates, Hong Kong moguls Li Ka-shing and Solina Chau, and multinational meat processor Cargill as major investors. At least eight startups around the world are racing to get clean meat to market, including three in the US, three in Israel, one in the Netherlands, and one in Japan. The CEO of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek has said his company expects to unveil its first clean meat product sometime this year, but its unclear whether it will be beef, fish, or chicken.— Chase Purdy
In recent months the long-promised skeleton key—if not holy grail—of medicine had finally been uncovered: the US Food and Drug Administration approved two types of CAR-T treatments for cancer.
CAR-T is often described as “revolutionary” and in this case, the descriptor is not hyperbole. These are the first real gene therapies approved in the US, and work by essentially reprogramming a patient’s own immune-system white blood cells—the “T” cells in “CAR-T”—to attack a potentially life-threatening cancer. (The “CAR” in the name stands for “chimeric antigen receptor,” a man-made receptor added to the T cells that helps them better find and destroy cancer cells.)
In August, the FDA approved Novartis’s Kymriah to treat a form of childhood leukemia, and in October, it approved Gilead’s Yescarta to treat certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These both treat very rare diseases, but of course would still save lives, and perhaps more importantly lay the groundwork for the development of many other therapies that apply similar approach to treat more widespread illnesses. In fact, in the first week of 2018, a CAR-T therapy was shown to successfully kill HIV-infected cells in primate and petri-dish trials. — Elijah Wolfson
To the Trump administration “energy dominance” means exploiting the abundant fossil-fuel reserves in the US in order to not only become energy-independent, but also a major supplier to other countries, like China, so they become dependent on the US. Trump critics, meanwhile, say “energy dominance” is nothing more than rhetorical scaffolding to prop up dying fossil-fuel industries and flout environmental goals set under the Paris climate agreement.
Under the banner of “energy dominance,” the White House has supported coal, when electricity producers are moving to cheaper and cleaner natural gas; approved the Keystone XL pipeline extension, which will enable American oil refineries to use dirty Canadian tar sands; and opened up nearly all offshore waters for oil drilling (which had been previously protected for environmental reasons). It’s not yet clear whether these actions can make the US can be energy independent, let alone dominant. The US still imports 30% of the oil it needs. What’s clear is Trump’s moves will hurt global action to mitigate climate change. Remember that when you hear “energy dominance” in 2018. — Akshat Rathi
Negatively priced electricity
This year, the world will deploy the biggest solar-panel and wind-turbine farms in history. It will also generate more energy from these intermittent sources—that rely on the vagaries of the weather—than it did in 2017. That’s going to create a peculiar side-effect: negatively priced electricity.
Most electrical grids are only built to handle certain amounts of power levels. Too much energy sitting in the grid could cause it to fail. In the recent past, grid operators from California to Germany have from time to time been forced to actually pay consumers to use the excess power. That’s the so-called “negatively priced” energy. It’s going to happen more often in 2018. The solution to the problem is building energy storage. For handling daily peaks and troughs, we’ll need huge batteries; for inter-seasonal fluctuations, we’ll need technologies that store energy in the form of a liquid or gas. — Akshat Rathi
In 2018, China will launch the world’s largest carbon market, a marketplace where emissions can be traded. The idea is to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, so companies aren’t passing on environmental costs to the public like they do now. (By one estimate, each extra metric ton of carbon dioxide we put out into the atmosphere today is likely to cause $140 worth of damage in the future.)
Economist argue that carbon pricing, if done right, can be the most efficient way to hit climate goals. What happens in China will likely shape policies in countries that don’t already have a carbon price in some form. — Akshat Rathi
Taking action to combat climate change requires steady access to capital. For an individual, it might be used to buy a more energy-efficient home. For companies, capital could be used to deploy carbon-capture technology and cut fossil-fuel emissions. Luckily, as the world has become more serious about scaling up climate action, financial entities have sprung up to support them (and in the process make some money).
The most significant financing development is the creation of green bonds, in which securities are issued to raise money for climate action projects. For four years in a row, the amount of so-called green bonds has grown, and they reached a record $120 billion in 2017. Let’s hope the pace continues, because we will need much greater sums if we are to hit our climate goals. Though numbers vary depending on whom you ask, one estimate suggests that by mid-century more than 50% of all our electricity should come from solar and wind. Today that figure stands at about 5%. — Akshat Rathi
It’s impossible for anyone, scientist or layperson, to have the access or the knowledge necessary to assess every scientific study produced by every lab around the world. That’s why the peer-review process, in which research teams submit their work for assessment in hopes of getting published in an established science journal, serves as the gatekeeper. Only valid science is supposed to pass through to the general public.
The problem is the system hasn’t worked. The peer-review process is largely untested according to systematic reviews (and yes, that is a peer-reviewed study on peer review), and plagued with problems, including gender bias and cronyism. It isn’t even very good at catching bad science. As Ivan Oransky, editor in chief of Retraction Watch noted a couple of weeks ago, journal retractions continue to be on the rise.
One proposed solution is the preprint approach, which has been used in the fields of physics and mathematics for years, and currently occurs mainly on arXiv.org, an open online repository hosted by Cornell University wheres scientists can submit early in a study’s life for peer review. The arXiv community responds to the early-stage studies, often offering useful suggestions and even catching problems with methodologies. That means a wider range of experts can contribute, and, in the long term, they may even figure out how to actually improve on the peer-review process. — Elijah Wolfson