The science stories of 2005 that sparked our best conversations, wildest speculations and most passionate debates.

From the DEC/JAN 2006 issue of Seed:


YISpalmeiro.jpg Credit: Googie Man

Baseball fans, after expressing a clear preference for longballs and more offense, were shocked—shocked—by revelations in Jose Canseco’s best-selling book of “rampant” steroid use in the U.S. national game. The former player, vilified for naming names and dismissed by many as a shameless publicity-seeker, was suddenly credible when one of his accused, Rafael Palmiero, tested positive just months after a finger-wagging denial in Congressional testimony. (Record-breaker Mark McGwire’s tearful refusal to speak about past steroid use in testimony before the same committee was therefore cast into as much suspicion.) And fans of all sport worldwide found good reason to explore the contradictions inherent in wanting better performance—but only if it’s “pure”—as well as the roles of truth, integrity and labs like the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, in sports.


YISmanonmoon.jpg Credit: NASA

Following an error-filled relaunch of the shuttle program—the same insulating foam that doomed Columbia failed again, and a spacewalk repair mission was required to mitigate the heat-shield damage—NASA’s new administrator, Michael Griffin, announced that the agency would focus its energies on making new footprints on the moon by 2018. The old space shuttle is out, and a replacement is on the way, slowly. As NASA struggles to continue flights and complete construction of the International Space Station, China’s space program is surging ahead. One question for spaceflight watchers is whether NASA will be able to afford the shuttle and the space station, and make it back to the Moon—before the Chinese.


This was a year for Africa: A massive commitment on the part of the West to cancel debt was key, but so too was a statement—from the the national science academies of the G8 nations and the Network of African Science Academies—for support of science, technology and innovation across the continent. The Nelson Mandela Foundation announced the establishment of the African Institute of Science and Technology, which plans to open four regional centers throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a promising start. Africans hope to emulate the example set by Asia and become a significant home for scientific research. 


YISoil.jpg Credit: Paul Cowan

While Katrina was the hurricane that caused the most damage on shore, Rita was the storm that hit the the oil industry the hardest. A Category 5 when it swept up the center of the Gulf of Mexico, it temporarily paralyzed 90% of crude production and 72% of natural gas output in the gulf—a critical source of America’s supply of cheap energy. Worldwide, gas prices spiked as oil companies declared record profits, their stocks reaching all-time highs; the Bush administration flip-flopped on the “personal virtue” of conservation, newly trumpeting the “Energy Hog” in ads and photo-ops; and car manufacturers transformed the batteries in hybrids from energy-savers to electrical turbo-chargers.

Researchers around the world made progress with existing stem-cell lines and non-embryonic stem cells, and U.S. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist changed his mind, giving his support to new federal funding for embryonic stem cells. Meanwhile, Hwang Woo-suk in South Korea forged ahead with the most advanced work in stem cells and cloning (see p. 90), and the South Koreans opened an international stem-cell bank, demonstrating just how far behind the U.S. has fallen.

The FDA’s Phase IV—the process for monitoring drugs already on the market—took a public beating this year, with the agency having to set up an independent review mechanism to fix a system the Vioxx scandal exposed as dangerously broken. But substantial change has yet to come and the creation of the Drug Safety Oversight Board was seen by reform-minded senators and scientists as a toothless move by a stodgy agency. Following disturbing revelations about links between anti-depressants and teen suicide, and just as questions about the safety of Paxil for pregnant women emerged, the FDA commissioner stepped down after a short but turbulent tenure (the troubled agency has been through going through bosses like water). Next up: cloned food. 

YISevolution.jpg Credit: Bulent Ince

Probably the most refreshing product of intelligent design—the doctrine that suggests life is the product of a deliberative agent—has been the volume of excellent articles about what science is. And then, there was the comic relief of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—a sarcastic version of an intelligent designer. But across America, religious division in small towns over what can and can’t be uttered in high-school science classes has been anything but amusing, and, in late September, all eyes turned to a Dover, Pennsylvania, courtroom to see where the anti-science, Christian fundamentalist movement is going. The coming fight in Kansas will show how successful the Christian Right’s invasion of U.S. public education has been.

Though abundant legal precedent seemed to have settled the matter for good, Terry Schiavo’s parents and a Republican Congress beholden to its far-right base dragged the country through a battle over proper treatment at the end of life, a conflict that pivoted on lengthy discussions about the physiological nature of a persistent vegetative state (PVS) and epistemology—the ability or inability of physicians to diagnose it. The debate over whether faith or science determines a patient’s right to die, though quieted for the moment by an autopsy confirming that Terry Schiavo was blind and that her brain had no higher cognitive function, is one that America is sure to revisit. 


YISclimate.jpg Credit: Ashok Rodrigues

As world leaders and rock stars met late into the night debating the specific wording of statements on the causes of, and proposed solutions to, climate change, communities across the globe witnessed floods, melting sea-ice, altered wildlife migration patterns, and temperature and precipitation records that all took their toll on lives and cultures. Skeptics who had insisted that temperatures weren’t rising according to climate change models had their key evidence repudiated by a series of research papers that corrected earlier, flawed data. Europe’s twisting of Russia’s arm brought the Kyoto Protocol into effect, though Britain, it appeared, would miss its target of drastically cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. Meanwhile, the U.S., Australia and a group of developing Pacific-rim nations launched their own, less restrictive climate-change pact. Still, the waters rose.


YISavian.jpg Credit: Laura Blake

With chatter over a global flu pandemic increasing, traffic to disease surveillance Web sites and headlines about vaccine stockpiles reached a new high. Tracking the course of bird deaths and the subsequent culling of flocks from Southeast Asia to Europe (as of press time),  images of burning carcasses began to make appearances on nightly newscasts with unsettling frequency, and public health officials were at times the most adamant doomsayers of recent memory.

While individualized medicine is heralded as the wave of the future, designing drug trials for it promises to be difficult. How Big Pharma, physicians, biotech and regulatory agencies handle the first race-targeted medications may provide clues to how they will someday deal with individualized medicines of the future. In the meantime, hypertension and heart disease in African-Americans have proven a contentious issue: Are elevated rates of these and related disorders due to genetics or
environmental factors and a systematic lack of access to health care in many African-American communities? Can race-based medicine be embraced without perpetuating social inequity? Even as it promises improved health to many, it echoes a troubling history of racism and eugenics. How these medicines are dealt with will set the precedent for regulating health care in the future.

Originally published December 27, 2005


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