With all the disturbing news that has emerged from the fields of health and science this year, some of the incredible advancements that have occurred have perhaps been overlooked. But there have been many weird and wonderful feats in the world of research.
Life-saving tests, treatments and vaccines have been developed and deployed – including those led by Australian doctors – and the world’s first malaria vaccine for children has been approved by the World Health Organization. A new species of dinosaur has been discovered in southwest Queensland, which has given us a better understanding of how they evolved. We’ve learned from NASA that the dreaded asteroid Apophis won’t hit Earth for at least 100 years, so that’s a relief.
Meanwhile, approval was given for the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescopes in Australia and South Africa, in the hope that the two largest and most complex radio telescope arrays, once built , will redefine our understanding of space.
Guardian Australia asked some of the foremost experts in various fields to share the scientific breakthroughs they have found most interesting, inspiring or surprising this year. Amid unhappiness and sadness there is a lot of progress, innovation and hope to celebrate.
Professor John Shine
President of the Australian Academy of Sciences, Molecular Biologist and Former President of CSL Limited
The development and success of RNA-based vaccines have had a huge global impact over the past year. There is huge short-term success, but it also opens up many potential long-term opportunities to provide RNA as a vaccine against emerging diseases and also as a way to develop new therapies to treat a whole range of disorders.
To bring out a new kind of vaccine, it takes very large clinical trials, because a crucial part with a vaccine, of course, is safety.
RNA research has been going on for decades. The difficulty in translating this into practical use in the field of vaccines is due to the fact that we have a lot of good vaccines for other diseases. If you already have great vaccines that work, it is very difficult for a new vaccine to come on the market. It was an obstacle to the practical development of RNA vaccines, for which the pandemic suddenly produced a reason, [because] we needed something new.
Dr Dana Bergstrom
Applied Antarctic Ecologist and Principal Investigator in the Australian Antarctic Division
Antarctica is an indicator of the impacts of climate change, with recent evidence of ecosystem collapse and that a major ice shelf in western Antarctica could fail within the decade.
So for me the most exciting breakthrough this year is not a discovery but a solid investment in future Antarctic science, heralded by the arrival of Australia’s new icebreaker, the RSV Nuyina, the polar research vessel. most advanced in the world, and the launch of not one, but three new university research initiatives in Antarctica.
Prof. Dominic Dwyer
Medical virologist, Australian representative of the World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, director of public health pathology at NSW Health.
From my perspective, the origins of Sars-CoV-2 have been the big story.
Knowing where viruses and pandemics start is crucial to understanding the interactions between humans and animals, and how this is influenced by human behavior, industrialization and climate change.
Then, once a virus enters humans, how human actions affect its spread – travel, mass gatherings, the medical system, access to healthcare, and other actions. We need this knowledge to prepare for the next pandemic – rest assured, there will be another!
This was then covered up by politics, to an extraordinary extent never seen before. Everyone blamed themselves for causing the pandemic, often to cover up their own poor responses to the pandemic. It has led to secrecy and suspicion, delay and obfuscation, denial and accusation. Investigating the origins of a disease is an essential scientific and medical endeavor – politics have made this task nearly impossible and depressingly “anti-science”.
It needs to be fixed. “
Associate Professor Tari Turner
Director of the National Covid-19 Clinical Evidence working group, and Associate Professor at Cochrane Australia.
In my personal and professional roles, it is incredibly difficult to look past the incredibly rapid development of effective Covid-19 vaccines in terms of the astonishing scientific advancements over the past two years.
But, in my other life, I am a budding astronaut, and I am completely amazed by the NASA Ingenuity helicopter, which made 18 successful flights to a whole other planet in 2021!
In a year that I barely managed to leave my home, the possibility of helicopter flights to Mars looks even more like science fiction than it normally would.
Professor Matthew England
Professor of Oceanic and Climate Dynamics at the University of New South Wales and Co-Founder of the UNSW Climate Change Research Center
I think the most important finding released in 2021 is a study of the ocean conditions around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which in total traps around seven meters of global sea level. Losing the WAIS and hundreds of millions of people around the world are believed to be displaced. WAIS is known to be the most vulnerable component of the Antarctic ice sheet system, and the uncertainty about future melt rates is one of the biggest unanswered questions in polar climate science.
The published ocean measurements were taken alongside the Thwaites Glacier, which is the most rapidly evolving WAIS outlet. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle, the study documents the earliest measurements of temperature, salinity and oxygen on the Thwaites Ice Front. Measurements revealed that hot water was entering from all sides at what are known as the glacier’s âanchor pointsâ – these are critical to the stability of the ice shelf.
This confirms what has long worried scientists about the Thwaites Glacier; that is, hot water causes melting at key anchor points. The location of the hot water shows that there is an increased risk of glacier detachment and increased WAIS melting.