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The Top Eight Science Policy News Stories of 2008

Discoveries and Decisions That Will Change Our World

map showing extend of artic sea ice melt SOURCE: AP/National Snow and Ice Data Center A thumbnail of advances in science that will have long-lasting impacts on science policy—or advances in science policy that we predict will have long-lasting impacts on science.

As 2008 comes to a close, it’s understandable that very few of us in the science community may want to look back. Who wants to remember the last year of an eight-year stretch during which science was repeatedly trumped by political expediency and ideology?

But if we are truly committed to evidence, we should push ourselves to take one last glance backward and review some of the biggest science policy-related lessons that 2008 had to teach. Here, then, is a Science Progress thumbnail of eight advances in science that will have long-lasting impacts on science policy—or advances in science policy that we predict will have long-lasting impacts on science. Counting down from 8 to 1, in no particular order:

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

8: Strong evidence that making biofuels such as ethanol from food crops is not going to save the world

Detailed global modeling by Timothy Searchinger of Princeton and colleagues showed that production of corn-based ethanol would double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions over a 30-year period instead of reducing those emissions by 20 percent, as previous calculations had suggested. Biofuels from switchgrass grown on U.S. corn lands would increase emissions by fully 50 percent, the study also found. Older research had not properly taken into account the impacts of land-use changes, such as converting carbon-sequestering rainforests to farmland. Thanks to the new understanding, many are now calling for changes in fledgling U.S. economic incentives that had aimed to boost biofuel production on domestic farms.

7: Growing evidence that we are going to have to get CO2 levels down even more than we thought if we don’t want to live in an ice-free world

map showing extent of artic sea ice melt
Record-breaking glacial melts and improvements in climate models have led a growing number of scientists to agree that the world needs to get CO2 levels down to 350 parts per million, and avoid hitting the cap of 450 ppm that many had previously accepted as a goal. While the details are still in dispute, the need to change our behavior with regard to CO2 emissions is now beyond doubt, with real concern that even a very concerted effort at this point will barely be able to save the planet from radical mean temperature changes and greater rises in sea-level than had previously been expected. As NASA climate scientist James Hansen put it earlier this year: “Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.”

6: Overwhelming evidence that in this age of global trade, the Food and Drug Administration is not anywhere near able to protect us from imported contaminants and toxins in our food, toys, drugs and other commodities

baby bottles
Phony heparin in blood thinners from China. Toxic melamine not just in pet food but also in baby formula. Leaded paint on toddler’s toys. Potentially dangerous phthalates such as BPA in baby bottles and intravenous tubing. E. coli in spinach. Salmonella on cantaloupes. The list goes on. It’s not that the agency is inherently inept or its employees unqualified. Quite the contrary, it is bustling with dedicated scientists and public health expertise. But short on resources, struggling with a bureaucratic structure that no longer makes sense, hobbled by a lack of needed legal authorities, the agency is today destined to fail repeatedly. Happily, the string of problems that the FDA battled in 2008 seemed at last to reach the degree of critical mass needed to get the attention of the public and Congress. Expect real action next year, both in terms of budget growth and a push for organizational reform.

5: Passage of legislation requiring “open access” publishing for all research reports resulting from work funded by the National Institutes of Health

Pub Med logo
After years of heated debate inside and outside of Congress, the NIH implemented the nation’s first open access law in April. As a result, all 80,000 or so research papers published each year that describe the results of NIH-funded studies must now be made available on a free, publicly accessible database within 12 months after publication in a journal. No longer will people who want to read the results of NIH research—paid for with their tax dollars—have to subscribe to expensive scientific journals or pay page charges to the publishers, as has long been the case. The advance will also make it easier for scientists to access each other’s work and for researchers to combine data sets from multiple published reports to perform meta-analyses—a cost-saving means of leveraging scientific data that has been difficult to implement until now.

4: The official opening of the Svalbard seed vault in Norway

Svalbard seed vault
This high-security, deep-freeze storage locker, nicknamed by some “the doomsday vault,” is poised to become the seed bank of last resort—the go-to place after a nuclear holocaust or other disaster. After more than a year of construction in the side of a permafrost-bound mountain, it began accepting its first deposits in 2008. The governments responsible for many of the world’s smaller, regional seed banks are not maintaining them, it turns out, or natural disasters or war have damaged or destroyed the banks. The opening of the new vault helped bring food security to the fore, reminding nations that today’s agricultural seeds are the product of ten millennia of slow, scientific work on genetic improvement, and that this legacy deserves both protection and responsible extension.

3: Congressional passage of the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act

human chromosomes
It took about a dozen years of lobbying by scientists, ethicists, healthcare advocates, and others, but Congress at last passed GINA, a watershed civil rights bill that prevents employers and health insurers from discriminating on the basis of individuals’ inherited genetic material. The law protects patients and genetic study participants from having their genomes used against them and, by minimizing the threat of genetic mischief, should facilitate the launch of personalized medicine, in which diagnoses and treatments will be tailored to individuals’ genetic codes. It may also boost direct-to-consumer advertising of genetic tests, some of which have proven in the past year to be of questionable medical value. Watch for an escalating debate in 2009 over how best to oversee this nascent-but-growing blend of medicine, marketing, and DNA-based narcissism.

2: The first construction on an entire bacterial genome from scratch

e coli bateria
Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, reported they had synthesized the complete genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium. Previous experiments suggest that if the stitched-together DNA were inserted into a cell, it would automatically “boot up” and turn that cell into what would be the world’s first synthetic life form. Venter’s primary goal is to design, from scratch, artificial cells able to break down pollutants or produce novel biofuels. At the same time, some experts are now wringing their hands over the fact that the same technology could be used to create highly customized biological weapons. This “dual-use” aspect of synthetic biology is sure to be a major focus of scientific societies, regulators, and ethicists in 2009.

1: The appointment of a new team of scientific advisers for the next administration

announcement of Obama energy team
What can we say? President-elect Barack Obama has created nothing less than a dream team when it comes to putting people with real scientific expertise in all the key slots that will need to make evidence-based decisions over the next four years—including his decision, released over the weekend, to post Nobel-prize-winning cancer researcher Harold Varmus and genomics whiz kid Eric Lander to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

The actual evidence that all these Obama-appointed scientists are going to hew to, of course, is largely dispiriting. Climate change, energy needs, food insecurity, and economic chaos—all are threatening global peace and undermining the human quest for justice. But progress is not possible without a square look at the facts. I for one am ready to swallow hard, face the unalloyed truth, and support the plans that have the best hope of getting this listing ship of state on an even keel again.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and evidence-based 2009.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

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