The Biggest Science Stories of 2007 How will 2007 be remembered in the science history books? From the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded for climate change work, to breakthroughs in stem cell research, guests review the top science stories of the year and discuss which discoveries slipped under the radar.
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The Biggest Science Stories of 2007

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The Biggest Science Stories of 2007

The Biggest Science Stories of 2007

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Up next, a look back at the year in science. Now, if you had to pick the biggest science story of 2007, which one would get your vote? Science Magazine, they pick one every year, and this year, they picked the human genetic variation as its breakthrough of the year. Nature named the head of the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, as its newsmaker of the year. They sort of won a double award, with also with the Nobel Peace Prize and Al Gore whose latest report says it's 90 percent - the IPCC said it's 90 percent certain that activity - human activity is causing global warming.

You might say, hey, you know that Arctic ice, we've seen those great pictures of the Arctic ice melting even faster than scientists predicted, maybe that's, you know, that changed a lot of people's minds. Maybe that's a great best science story of the year or a health story. There's a health story that's related to that as scientists are documenting the health effects of global warming. Then right there smack toward the end of the year, we have the - those retro stem cells. What - people might say, hey, you know, that's a big story of the year, but it's not that big because it hasn't gone a whole big direction yet, you know? How about Craig Venter's genome or the discovery of more planets outside our solar system?

Well, we've gathered some of our favorite and most knowledgeable NPR reporters for a look back at the year in science. And if you'd like to join our discussion, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. As always, you can go over to "Second Life" and join the other avatars there that are sending in questions and talking about our SCIENCE FRIDAY hour this hour.

Let me introduce my guests. Joe Palca is science correspondent for NPR in Washington, Elizabeth Shogren, is environmental correspondent at NPR, and Joanne Silberner is the NPR's health policy correspondent. Welcome, you all, to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


JOE PALCA: Thanks, Ira.

SHOGREN: Good to be here.

FLATOW: When was the last time all three of you were in front of a microphone?

PALCA: At the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I think it was '07 or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible)…

PALCA: I can't remember back that far. Right.

JOANNE SILBERNER: (Unintelligible).

PALCA: I was thinking you thinking you gathered the most impressive science writers, but they were busy, so you got us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, no, you guys are the tops.

PALCA: All right, thank you.

FLATOW: Come on, you know, that puts our show down. You're guys are at the top.

PALCA: Yes, we - you're lucky to have us.

FLATOW: There you go, that's what we need.

So, Joe, since you're talking up the first this hour, why don't you give us your pick for the top stories?

PALCA: Well, I mean, Ira, you know, you mentioned the big story on my beat. How am I not going to say that that's the top story?

FLATOW: Right.

PALCA: Although, we should have a discussion about what we all mean by top story, but I think this whole business about, you know, getting normal adult stem cells to sing and dance like embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo in the process is a fantastically important step. I mean, if this world of stem cell research is going to go anywhere, and it seems a lot of scientists believe it is, as you say not that much to show yet, but the promise still is there. If it's going to go anywhere, they're going to have to get around this ethical conundrum of destroying embryos. And if this really does that, briefly, to describe it you know, they take these adult cells. And they insert these genes that make them behave as if they were embryonic stem cells and it sort of gets rid of the question, I mean, you know, the question is: What are they?

Well, if they look like embryonic stem cells and they act like embryonic stem cells, and they do things like embryonic stem cells, are they embryonic stem cells?

FLATOW: Quite(ph) that.

PALCA: Well, you know, they are in one sense and they're not another - exactly.


PALCA: But if this gets around that, so I think that's a fantastically important step, and we'll just wait and see. I mean, you know, we - that's what we do in science, we wait and see.

FLATOW: We're talking about the best stories this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Joanne, well, your beat covers lots of health stuff, what would you like to pull out?

SILBERNER: I think I want to pull out a whole category because, you know, medicine moves slowly at the most time, occasionally it makes great leaps. And maybe in stem cells that may be happening, who knows, but the category I'd pick out for this year is infectious diseases.

In one of the under reported or under realized stories, I think, is that there's a vaccine that's been developed for bird flu if it does indeed come over. No one really knows if it works. You can't expose, people to bird flu and see whether or not they catch up. The government has developed a vaccine that's being put in a stockpile. The fact that bird flu hasn't arrived in humans in a big way is good news.

But there's bad news on infectious diseases front as well. We've got a similarly new form of MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus, which seems to be going around and no one quite knows what to do about it.

FLATOW: Right.

SILBERNER: There's a new cold virus that suddenly appeared and it's - no one knows how - they know that it can occasionally cause some big and serious problems, but no one knows the denominator. How often is that we're not doing anything? And new ear infection, so good news and bad news from infectious disease would take my vote.

FLATOW: Good news. I'm glad they don't have that med student syndrome at the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Elizabeth, what have you got for us?

SHOGREN: Well, I think it would have to be climate change reaching a tipping point as far as the public perception of how important and how real it is. It's been an amazing year, and we're only in the process here, but it's been an amazing year - you had the Supreme Court announce that it is a pollutant and that the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate it.

You had a Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore in the IPCC. We had a new IPCC report telling us that the dangers are more than we feared they might have been. There's been so much going on across the country and across the world and most recently in Bali where the world - representatives of the world's countries got together and decided on a plan forward or at least a plan to go forward and deal with the problem in a more serious way.

FLATOW: Well, now you have Arnold Schwarzenegger's going to take on Washington.

SHOGREN: Oh, was sure he is.

FLATOW: You know?

SHOGREN: And that's a fascinating story in itself.

FLATOW: It's a great story.

SHOGREN: But it - and it shows that this is not a Democratic issue. This is a bipartisan issue. Some of the Republican governors are at the forefront of this issue trying to push the United States to do more. And it's not just on the -in the states now the - in the Senate. A subcommittee and a committee voted to approve a measure that would set up a whole new system for controlling greenhouse gas emissions from cars and factories and power plants, and so that's on its way too.

FLATOW: We'll have to watch all of these. We're going to have to take a break, come back and take more of your questions from - what you think. Maybe - what do you think, are they stories we missed, some of the stories that are bigger, some of the stories that might deserve more attention with Joe Palca, Elizabeth Shogren and Joanne Silberner. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A brief program note: Since news broke that the CIA destroyed hundreds of hours of videotaped interrogations, a federal court and Congress have been asking questions and they're starting to get answers. Neal Conan revisits the destruction of the CIA tapes on Monday's TALK OF THE NATION.

This hour, we're talking about our year in science with my guests Elizabeth Shogren, environment correspondent at the national desk at NPR. Joanne Silberner is the health policy correspondent. Joe Palca is a science correspondent.

And our number - 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we got a - oh, we have a lot of phone calls here.

Let's go to Nelson(ph) in Tucson. Hi, Nelson.

NELSON (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

NELSON: Yeah, so my story of the year is kind of personal, I guess, being that I just finished the post docs and took and took a job in the industry. And the reason behind that is kind of my story in that post docs are leaving - or leaving academics at a very high rate, and I think it has to do a lot with the funding situation as it stands being so difficult to get money, and I think that that might be a science story that's rather big, but might not be talked about as much.

FLATOW: You know, that is my sleeper science story of the year. We did a story - we did a show on this a few weeks ago about an urban institute study that showed exactly what you just said; that there are three times the number of qualified scientists and engineering graduates for the number of jobs available to them, three times as many. Where are they going was the question.

FLATOW: Why do we have to import talent from overseas when we have all this talents three times the number for the slots available?

NELSON: Right.

FLATOW: And you have answered that part of that question.

NELSON: Yeah, it's difficult too because, you know, being in academics for so long, I still believe that academics is probably the best place to do real science, you know? I answer the questions that need to be answered, but if all the brains are heading out of the industry, I think it might hurt a little bit. And…

FLATOW: Is that - is it because of the money? It's not just there for you?

NELSON: Not necessarily the money personally.


NELSON: But the need that if I wanted to become an assistant professor, I need to write grants pretty much year-round and not do science, and I can't write grants unless I do the science, so this awful Catch-22.



PALCA: Ira, can I jump in for a sec?

FLATOW: Sure, please.

PALCA: Well, this is actually, I mean, this is an interesting story because it's been going on for a long time and it's just…


PALCA: It's come up again in the last year or two because of some funny funding courts, I guess, somewhat at NIH. But it's been a very bad year for new grant approvals and a lot of scientists are discouraged about that. But there's a sort of a generic problem because the money for NIH, National Institutes of Health, has been going up and up and up and up, and if it hasn't gone up in the last year, it's certainly gone up quite a bit in the last 10 years.

And the point is, you know, even a little - there's a little problem in American scientists, which people don't like to talk about, and its' a sort of a pyramid scheme because, you know, once you get in at the bottom, you want money for the rest of your life and you want to train the next generation. And so, are you training the right number of people? Are you training too many people?

And, I think, we have to ask some serious questions because basically, we can never fund research at the rate at which we're drawing in competent people into the program, and so there's always going to be this problem of more qualified researchers than there is enough money. And it's a tough one, you know?

FLATOW: But why then there are the - are people coming from overseas to take these jobs that these people won't take?

NELSON: I can maybe offer…


NELSON: insight into that.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

NELSON: Overseas post docs don't necessarily have to be paid as much as American citizens. And I've heard that - in the institution that I was in -overseas post docs from China, for instance, didn't necessarily get paid as much as the…

PALCA: But that…

SHOGREN: Yeah, but they're having a problem now in getting visas since September 11th. There's been issues going back…


SHOGREN: …and forth some years are better than others. But certainly not as many people are getting to come in as they used to be able to.

FLATOW: You'll hear, though, the other side of the story, which will say the law says they have to get paid the same amount and then the third hand of the story is, but there are lots of loopholes in that law.

NELSOBN: There certainly are.

FLATOW: Yes. So, I think this is a huge issue about why we have - we're losing in the pipelines so many qualified people and that, to me, it's almost like the answer's almost the same. I heard - I asked somebody who - in the lab the other day. She's a lawyer, her husband is a post doc and he - I asked - I brought this up and I asked her why her husband is still there if he's surrounded by foreigners, and she said he's willing to put the hours in at the bottom line.

He says the foreigners are willing to come in and, you know, in the early stage of their lives and put the hours in for a chance to make it big. He said the other people - the other post docs that they know of, they've just gone in to the industry where they can make it big immediately.

NELSON: You got it.

FLATOW: They're not willing to start at the bottom.

SILBERNER: Well, in medicine, you know, there's been a problem with getting American medical students, you know, they're getting fewer and fewer attracted into family practice than some of the other…


SILBERNER: …primary care specialties that pay less. So when you have your residencies and internships, they need foreign medical grads.

FLATOW: So we're like farming out the early jobs in science like we farm out lawn mowing, you know? It's sort of the same thing that's going on in yard work and house work.


FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for calling. It was my soap box(ph).

Caller: Yeah. Thanks for the conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Elizabeth, another story you'd like to bring up.

SHOGREN: What we mentioned just briefly, the story that happened just this week. And it was kind of a combined story. We had the Congress and - approving a new energy bill which sets new fuel efficiency standards for cars - raising it to 35 miles per gallon. And the president signed that bill. And that was huge. It's been decades since there's been this kind of a big change of commitment by the U.S. government to improve fuel efficiency standards for cars, so cars will go farther on a gallon of gas. So that was a big deal.

FLATOW: Thirty years in the making.

SHOGREN: Yeah. It's quite a long time. And one of the things that will happen as a result of this is that cars - at least the new ones - will not emit as much greenhouse gases from their tailpipes as they do now because when cars go farther on a gallon of gas, they emit less greenhouses gases. And so that's a good thing for global warming as well.


SHOGREN: And that was part of what I think came together to push the Congress and the president to do something they hadn't wanted to do for a long time. I spoke to industry - just one. And the surprising thing about this is that the auto industry, in the end, supported this decision. It's something that they would never have done even six month ago. And I think that that's part of what indicates it; that even - that industry in the United States is seeing the writing the wall and that it's time to start doing things. And also that maybe it's time to start making deals that aren't as strict or as difficult as whatever deals they might be able to make once some other president is in office. But that's- it's an interesting…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm. And there are critics who say that in return for allowing that to happen, they got the EPA deal that went down this week.

SHOGREN: Right. And I think that that's really important to see is that the Bush administration is still the Bush administration. And while the president signed this the very same day, the Environmental Protection Agency told California and at least 16 other states that they may not go ahead with their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes even more than this energy - energy bill would have done, so the one that states want to go ahead and do something more extreme, the federal government is still obstructing that.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I was reading a story today - it might have been The Times or the Wall Street Journal, I can't remember because my mind is going -about the European Union making even stricter standards now for the automakers overseas. And to me, that said, well, you know, we've ratcheted it up again. Let's say the Europeans start making, you know, cars that do meet higher standards. Is Detroit going to be left behind again because they're not, you know, going to rush into this, like the Europeans might.

SHORGREN: Well, and the 35 miles per gallon target for this new rule is by 2020…

FLATOW: Right.

SHOGREN: …which is still some years down the road. And the European auto - the Europeans have a head start because they use a lot of diesel, which already is more efficient than gasoline, and so that gives them a head start towards using gas - using less fuel when they use their cars. So - and I do think that this is a - that there will be a big question of whether this is enough. And what California and Governor Schwarzenegger say and what many other people say around the country is that what the president signed isn't enough but will -but it is a big step forward nonetheless.

FLATOW: Let's go to Andre(ph) in Michigan. Hi, Andre.

ANDRE (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead,

ANDRE: The enigma that is the origin of the Moon and the Earth during the age of the late heavy bombardment of our early solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

FLATOW: You say an enigma.

ANDRE: The enigma of origin.

FLATOW: What do you mean by that?

ANDRE: How the early solar system formed our planet and the moon together.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So it didn't happen the way we think it did.


FLATOW: Let's see. Any comment on that? Anybody been following that one? We don't have.

PALCA: Not one of mine, Ira.

FLATOW: We don't have a planet correspondent.

PALCA: We don't have - we can run out into the newsroom and see if there's someone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: And for me not unless the moon has a heartbeat.

PALCA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's a good point. I remember the story was kind of interesting about (unintelligible).

PALCA: Yeah. I could tell you something about Mars, but I think I'd have to pass on the Moon. Sorry.

FLATOW: Sorry, Andre, but you stumped the panel and we need that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: That's terrible.

FLATOW: I'm looking for my bell. It's on the other side of the desk, and I can't quite reach it here. So, thanks, Andre.


There were - Joe, just because you brought it up -there were a lot of Mars things and planetary things that were going on.

PALCA: Oh, yeah. I mean, this has been a fantastic year, I mean, the flybys and Saturn, there were some more data coming from, I think, the Pluto mission and -I think I've got that right - and - but I, you know, I've been watching for these amazing little rovers on Mars. Can you believe it? I mean, you know, three and a half years ago, they're crossing their fingers and said, maybe 90 days. God, wouldn't that be great? We could drive a hundred yards. And now they've driven 16 miles or whatever it is. It's just - not that far, but it's just amazing. And it's such a tribute to what's possible.

And I think, in a way, you know, it's got to be a pain for NASA to hear this over and over again, you know? They've got this gazillion dollar space station circling the planet. They can't get it finished. They can't get the space shuttle to fly up to it, you know? The - all the people on there and most of what they're doing is keeping it - and doing housekeeping because there's so much stuff to keep take care of, and here are these little bitty, you know, by comparison, costing nothing rovers, you know, clunking along, taking data. They got probes orbiting the planet. They're coming back with a better understanding of where Mars came from, how there might have been life there, how - or how there might have been water at least. And, you know, it's just such a tribute to what's possible if you get a - well, you get a little lucky, okay. They know they're lucky. But they had a good design and they implemented it and the pay off has been incredible.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

FLATOW: There's the stump the panel bell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORGEN: Congratulations, Ira.

PALCA: I got that one right.

FLATOW: You got it. You got that right.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Joanne Silberner, Elizabeth Shogren and Joe Palca, talking about the big science stories of the year.

And, you know, the X PRIZE stuff. You, you know, sort of segueing into that, you know, a lot of X PRIZES are taking the place of government research. Private industries are funding some of these big new projects. And…

PALCA: Well, I think the idea is to say, you know, let's at least consider other ways of doing business in science and in exploration. And I think a lot of people are considering that.


PALCA: I mean, in a way, it reflects the little bit on what Elizabeth was saying about the states kind of getting involved in the climate change game. You know, the states obviously got involved in a big way in the embryonic stem cell research game because they said we're not really happy with the way the federal government is going.

And, you know, by the way, if you think these things really are going to have an economic payoff someday, well, why not encourage people to join in?


PALCA: And the people who say, look, even if there is no economic payoff right away, the ancillary benefits of having these prizes that people build infrastructures to go after is going to be helpful to the country. So it's - I think it's, you know, it's an interesting approach.


PALCA: But we'll see.

FLATOW: Yeah. Here's a question from Second Life from Leandro(ph) who says how about that Vitamin D story? It's a biggie.

SILBERNER: That's an interesting one. And that's - I think that bears…

FLATOW: Right. Yeah.

SILBERNER: …watching if you're looking forward to the future. Vitamin D is, you know, a lot of food is fortified with it. And, of course, if you're a fan of cod liver oil, you will enjoy plenty of it. It's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: But, you know, food is fortified and there's plenty of fish. I think there are people talking about should we increase the levels? It's been talked about as possibly being related to a lower risk of multiple sclerosis, although a lot of things have gone that way and not panned out. But colorectal cancer, that one's been around for a while. There's been suggestions that it may protect against colorectal cancer. And some of that evidence is pretty interesting. So I think we're going to see a lot of things happening on that front for sure.

FLATOW: So Vitamin D is the new Vitamin E sort of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. And, of course, we have to remember there have been a lot of disappointments with some of these vitamins. Beta-carotene was supposed…


SILBERNER: …to protect against all sorts of things. It turns out it may not only not be protective; it may be harmful in some cases. So I think no one is saying the Vitamin D story is done, but I certainly think it bears watching.

FLATOW: Rich(ph) in Rochester, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICH (Caller): I think another big story in - I think it's probably one with the global - I mean, the climate changes - the quiet comeback of nuclear energy with…


RICH: …the (unintelligible) designs and things like that.

FLATOW: That's been kind of coming.

SHOGREN: Well, that's a interesting point. I think comeback might be a little bit of a strong word because, so far, we have the industry hoping for, praying for, on the verge of poised for a comeback. But we don't have any new nuclear power plants. And we'll see if we get there or if we don't, but it is interesting that, at least from the standpoint of how people are talking about nuclear energy, it has become more popular. Now, of course, there are lots of people who are in positions of power who aren't so crazy about it, so we'll see what happens. But it's been interesting to see the nuclear energy industry kind of re-pitch itself. And the way it's pitching itself now is as the big answer to the climate change program.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

SHOGREN: And that's been fascinating. And they're in the huge budget bill that the president and Congress have been working on. There is more money for loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants and for other sources of energy that don't emit greenhouse gases. So it will be interesting to see whether those loan guarantees and all of this positive press might change the future of nuclear power and actually create a comeback.

FLATOW: Now, it is - we only have about less than a minute left and we didn't get to talk about 2008. But I'll tell you something I would like to see in 2008. I would to see science to become a topic of the political debates. I'd like to have someone talk about science…

PALCA: Well, there is…

FLATOW: …and questions about science in these debates, you know?

PALCA: Right. While that hasn't come up, I have seen there somebody who's organizing - I guess John Rennie from Scientific American just joined a group that's calling on the presidents to have - the presidential candidates to have a scientific debate. I've heard Hillary Clinton makes some comments about her positions. But, yeah, it's not really been an issue. I think, in a way, stem cells might have been an issue in this debate, in this campaign. But maybe that's been taken off the table by some…


PALCA: …of the news findings we've discussed. I don't know.

FLATOW: Well, we just…

SHOGREN: I think…

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SHOGREN: I think climate change will enter more. It's not as much of a debate right now among Republicans or among Democrats, but once it's - once the primaries are over, I think the topic will come out more.

FLATOW: Now, let's start out with the question to all the candidates: Why is it hotter in the summer than it is in the winter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And we will end it there and see how they compare with the Harvard graduates.

I want to thank all of my guests - Joanne Silberner, Joe Palca, Elizabeth Shogren - all the correspondents - science and health correspondents at NPR's desk. Thank you all. Have a great holiday season.

PALCA: You too, Ira.

SILBERNER: You too, Ira.

FLATOW: And we'll talk to you maybe next year.

SILBERNER: Terrific.

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