What’s coming up in 2019

Areas to watch

The RV Polarstern, shown here on a 2013 polar research cruise, will spend a winter frozen in Arctic sea ice.


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The science stories likely to make headlines in 2019

Scientists in Europe and the United States face an uncertain political landscape in the new year, which could affect funding and collaborations. The threat is most acute in the United Kingdom, which plans to exit the European Union in March but has not settled on the terms of its departure. Some big research findings could share the headlines, however, including the first clear images of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy, from astronomers in an international collaboration called the Event Horizon Telescope. Science's news staff forecasts other areas of research and policy likely to make news this year.


All eyes on polar ice

If you want to understand Earth's warming future, look to the poles. This year, scientists in two international projects will heed that call. In September, researchers will position a German icebreaker, the RV Polarstern, to freeze in Arctic sea ice for a year's stay. The ship will serve as the central hub for the €120 million Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, hosting researchers from 17 countries. They'll study how polar clouds, ocean dynamics, and first-year ice formation contribute to the Arctic's shift to ice-free summers. Then, near year's end, researchers from the United States and United Kingdom will fan out across the remote Thwaites Glacier, the part of the Antarctic ice sheet most at risk of collapsing into the ocean and driving up sea levels, in the first full season of a $50 million, 5-year effort. They'll probe the ice's structure and the water and land beneath it, using everything from seismometers to instrument-carrying seals. Both missions will benefit from revitalized satellite coverage, as two satellites launched last year, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on, which measure ice height and mass, respectively, begin to beam science data back home.


A science whisperer for Trump

For 2 years, President Donald Trump has been making decisions involving science and innovation without input from a White House science adviser. Meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, whom Trump nominated in late July 2018 to fill that void, was awaiting final Senate approval at press time. The question is what his arrival will mean for the administration's handling of an array of technical challenges, from regulation of human embryo engineering and self-driving cars to combatting cyberterrorism and fostering a more tech-savvy workforce. Some science-soaked issues may already have been settled, such as leaving the Paris climate accord and forsaking the Iran nuclear deal. But many others remain unresolved, including how to deal with Chinese espionage at U.S. universities without stifling global scientific cooperation.


New rights for alleged harassers

This year, the U.S. Department of Education may finalize controversial proposed rules that would reduce universities' liability for policing sexual harassment and sexual assault and give more rights to the accused. The regulations, proposed in November 2018, would change how institutions investigate such allegations under the landmark 1972 law known as Title IX. They wouldn't be responsible for investigating most off-campus incidents of harassment or assault, and the standard of evidence for confirming allegations of on-campus misconduct could rise. The definition of sexual harassment would be narrowed from "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature" to "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access" to education. And defendants' lawyers will be able to cross-examine accusers. The department is accepting comments on the proposals until 28 January.


Seeking new physics in the muon

By studying the magnetism of a particle called the muon, physicists hope to find results this year that could point to new particles or forces, something they have craved for decades. Scientists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, are examining whether the muon—a heavier and shorter-lived cousin of the electron—is more magnetic than theory predicts. The Muon g-2 experiment found a hint of such an excess when it ran at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, from 1997 to 2001. Physicists moved the experiment's 15-meter-wide electromagnet to Fermilab in 2013, upgraded the apparatus, and started to record data in January 2018. A first result could be one of the biggest stories in particle physics this year, with the world's biggest atom smasher, Europe's Large Hadron Collider, idled for 2 years of upgrades.


A fine-grained look inside cells

In cell biology, higher resolution means more gets revealed. Now, scientists are ready to use new combinations of tools and techniques to provide close-up looks at components inside cells in unprecedented detail, and in 3D. Already, researchers can analyze DNA, proteins, RNA, and epigenetic marks in single cells. This year, multidisciplinary teams plan to combine those methods with advances in cryoelectron tomography, labeling techniques to trace molecules, and other types of microscopy to see subcellular structures and processes. For example, a multifaceted technique for imaging and staining DNA could shed new light on how chromosomes fold. And the blended methods could yield clearer pictures at the molecular level of how cells divide and change shape, and how gene activity affects structure and function.


Solar dimming gets a test

A geoengineering technique to curb global warming by temporarily dimming the sun's rays could get its first, modest field experiment this year. In solar geoengineering, vast amounts of reflective aerosol particles would be sprayed into the high atmosphere, mimicking the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, led by climate scientists at Harvard University, will test the idea in a small, controlled way. If its plans are approved by an advisory board, the team will loft a balloon into the stratosphere, where it will release 100 grams of reflective particles—probably calcium carbonate, the chalky ingredient in antacid tablets. Flying back through the plume, the balloon will observe its cooling effect. Solar-radiation management, as it's known, is controversial. It does not reduce the built-up carbon dioxide that drives climate change and ocean acidification, and there's no accepted international governance.


Divided we stand?

You'll need a Ouija board to predict how U.S. science will fare this year under a divided government, with Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives while Republicans retain the Senate with President Donald Trump in the White House. There are the known flashpoints—Democrats challenging the Trump administration on its environment and energy policies, for example. Spending cuts will be on the table as lawmakers face tight budget caps mandated by a 2011 law. Then there are the what-ifs, including whether the Supreme Court will throw out a citizenship question on the 2020 census and lawmakers can suspend partisan bickering long enough to pass an infrastructure package that would boost U.S. innovation. A few science-savvy new members of Congress hope to lend a hand.

With control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats will likely examine environmental policies.



New GM mosquitoes take off

The first release of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in Africa is set to happen in Burkina Faso this year, an initial step in a planned "gene drive" strategy against malaria. It will be the first release of GM mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, which transmits the parasite responsible for the disease. The gene drive approach, under development at the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, would spread mutations through the wild population that knock out key fertility genes or reduce the proportion of female insects, which transmit disease. But the first GM Anopheles mosquitoes released won't bear such mutations and aren't intended to cut down the population. Researchers will let out fewer than 10,000 genetically sterilized males to observe how they survive and disperse in the wild and to help introduce the concept of GM mosquitoes to regulators and community members.


Nations size up biodiversity

Three years in the making, a $2.4 million assessment of Earth's biodiversity and ecosystems will be published in May. By evaluating trends over 50 years in indicators such as species extinctions and extent of marine protected areas, it will chart progress toward international goals on biodiversity conservation—and, in many places, how far short the world is falling. Experts from 50 nations have participated in a review of scientific literature and government data conducted under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report, the first since a similar effort in 2005, will forecast the future of species on the planet under business-as-usual and other scenarios. The new assessment is intended to inform the next generation of biodiversity targets, due in 2020.

A global assessment will examine endangered species, which include the ploughshare tortoise in Madagascar.



The next planetary mission

In July, NASA will chart its next major step in planetary science when it selects the next billion-dollar mission under its New Frontiers program. The agency will choose between two finalists. Dragonfly would send a semiautonomous quad-copter to fly across the surface of Titan, the saturnian moon sculpted by rivers of liquid methane. The copter would search for clues of chemical reactions that could lead to life. The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return mission would return gases and ice from the nucleus of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Such samples, likely unaltered for billions of years, could provide a window into the role comets played in delivering water and organic compounds to Earth in its early history.


A push to return museum holdings

Researchers are beginning new efforts to return bones and cultural artifacts collected for study and as museum specimens to the peoples from whom they were obtained, often without consent. Expect renewed debate on this issue, as after centuries of exploitative collecting, some researchers use new methods to collaborate with those communities, and also expand efforts to return objects of art. A study from Australia published last month showed ancient DNA can be used to reliably link the remains of Aboriginal ancestors to living descendants. Some warn, however, that widespread adoption of similar methods could be used to coerce communities into genetic testing. In France, a government-commissioned report recommended in November 2018 that over the next 5 years, French museums work with colleagues in Africa to repatriate tens of thousands of cultural artifacts looted during colonial rule if their countries of origin ask for them.


Disease crisis looms for swine

Pig farmers—and perhaps some bacon lovers—will anxiously scan the headlines this year for news of African swine fever (ASF). Harmless to humans, the viral disease is highly infectious and lethal among pigs, causing serious economic damage through culls and trade bans. ASF made major jumps in Europe last year, turning up for the first time in pigs and wild boar in Bulgaria and in boar in Belgium and Hungary. The virus can jump from boar, which are difficult to manage, to swine. Germany, Denmark, and other major pork producers are on high alert. Most worrisome was the first detection of the virus in China, a long-dreaded development in the country with the world's largest pig population. China has recorded more than 80 outbreaks since August 2018, including in boar. Authorities have clamped down on the transport of pigs, culled more than 630,000, and last month reportedly banned pig farming where wild boar are present. Despite these efforts, the virus could still explode in China and elsewhere in Asia.


China eyes bioethics overhaul

China is likely to tighten its rules for genetic engineering of humans, including the creation of heritable traits, in the wake of an uproar over such work in 2018. A Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced in November 2018 that he modified a gene in embryos that led to twin baby girls. The modification is meant to protect them and their descendants from HIV infection, a feat widely condemned in China and worldwide as unethical, unjustified, and possibly harmful to the babies. Most countries ban or outlaw such experiments. In China, however, what i s apparently the most relevant regulation was enacted in 2003 and never updated to cover advances in gene editing. Since the announcement, numerous Chinese researchers, ethicists, and officials have called for an overhaul of the country's bioethics laws and regulations, although no agency or institution has been named to lead the effort. Another question for this year is whether He will face sanctions.

Curated and edited by Jeffrey Brainard.