Top 8 SciTech Policy Stories of 2015

Number 8 is that viewing cat videos is good for you.



The past year saw some amazing science and technology breakthroughs and discoveries. These include the fantastic photos of Pluto and its moons by the New Horizons mission; the discovery of Homo naledi, a new member of the human family in the depths of a South African cave; and the sighting of liquid water on the surface of Mars; and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket's first stage booster successfully landing at Cape Canaveral.

New scientific discoveries and technology developments regularly provoke and guide discussions of public policy. Keeping that in mind, below are this year's top 8 science and technology stories whose consequences will reverberate well beyond this year.

Number 1: CRISPR. It could easily be Numbers 2 through 8 too on this list. Science declared CRISPR the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year, correctly noting, "It's the simple truth. For better or worse, we all now live in CRISPR's world." CRISPR is easy for biotechnologists to use and makes almost any imaginable genetic manipulation possible.

Derived from what amounts to a bacterial immune system for fighting off attacking viruses, the CRISPR gene-editing technique was first developed barely three years ago. CRISPR can edit genes much like a word processing program can edit text. Researchers hope it will allow them to cure cancer, correct genetic diseases, generate more productive and nutritious crops and farm animals, spread desired genetic modifications through wild ecosystems, engineer pigs as organ donors for people, and prevent heritable diseases by altering the genomes of human embryos—all in the not-so-distant future. In December, some 400 scientists, ethicists, policy makers, and activists convened at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing declined to recommend a permanent ban on making inheritable changes in the human genome

Number 2: Cimate change and the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change by diplomats from nearly 200 countries. According to various research groups, 2015 is the warmest year in the instrumental record or the third warmest year in the satellite record. The Paris Agreement purports to be a century-long central plan aimed at keeping the future projected global average temperature increase well below 2°C. Achieving this this goal will chiefly require the rationing energy produced by fossil fuels as a way to limit increases in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

Number 3: The confirmation that most published research findings are indeed false. In August, Science published a massive study in which researchers sought to replicate the results of one hundred prominent studies published in leading psychology journals. The researchers found that only 39 of the 100 replication attempts were successful. These findings followed upon earlier studies that reported very low replication rates for pre-clinical cancer research studies published in leading journals.  For example, Amgen researchers in 2012 reported that they could confirm the results from only six out of 53 landmark papers. The good news is that scientists are beginning to adopt measures aimed at correcting this scandalous lack of reproducibility.

Number 4: The hyperventilated finding that eating bacon (and other meats) causes cancer. In October, the hyper-precautionary International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, declared that processed meats are definitely human carcinogens. Steak and chop lovers were also warned that red meat is probably a human carcinogen. However, unless you are highly risk averse, carnivores can relax. The IARC found that eating cured meats raises your risk of getting colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Since the average lifetime risk of getting the illness is about 5 percent, frequently eating bacon and assorted other tasty cured meats boosts your lifetime risk to about 6 percent. For context, smoking tobacco increases your risk of getting lung cancer by 2,500 percent, yet cured meats and tobacco are now classified together by the IARC as Group 1 (highest risk) carcinogens. I will continue to eat as much bacon and sausage as I like.

Number 5: The discovery of teixobactin; the first new class of antibiotic announced in decades. This is great news since so many disease-causing bacteria have evolved resistance to our current arsenal of antibiotics. The compound was isolated from a species of soil bacteria and works by preventing other bacteria like anthrax, tuberculosis, MRSA and Clostridium difficile from building up their outer membranes. The researchers report that teixobactin appears to be safe to use in mammals. Because teixobactin simultaneously attacks two essential building blocks used by a wide variety of bacteria to construct their outer coats, the researchers believe that it would take decades for disease microbes to develop resistance to it. Even more promisingly, the researchers have developed the iChip as a method for growing previously uncultivable bacteria in the laboratory. The enables them to screen for and identify thousands of compounds produced by soil bacteria that may have therapeutic benefits. Clinical trials of teixobactin in humans are likely to begin in two years.

Number 6: The end of the world's worst Ebola epidemic that broke out in West Africa in December 2013 and which eventually killed more than 11,000 people. In December, Guinea was declared free of the disease. Due to a new case of Ebola in November, Liberia remains as the only country in the region that has still not officially emerged from the epidemic. Also in November, a report by an expert panel published in The Lancet detailed the World Health Organization's many failures in response to the outbreak. In the early days of the epidemic, panicky politicians irrationally imposed quarantines on returning American medical personnel who treated cases in West Africa. Donald Trump even demanded that American doctors who treated Ebola patients be barred from returning home. As I predicted, there was no Ebola epidemic in the U.S. The good news that the epidemic sparked a lot research on new vaccines that could be used to contain and even to prevent future outbreaks.

Number 7: Encryption and U.S. government surveillance of citizens. The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino emboldened surveillance hawks in Congress and in various national security bureaucracies to argue again that telecom companies must figure out a way to allow agencies to violate the civil liberties of Americans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared that he would introduce legislation to outlaw encryption that U.S. government spies can't crack. McCain wants to require that tech companies to install "backdoors" enabling government agencies to read their customers encrypted communications. Never mind that criminals and the spy agencies of other countries would be able to use the same backdoors. In ironic contrast to McCain and other national security surveillance state enablers here at home, the sweeping new anti-terror law adopted by the Chinese Communist government does not require tech companies to install security backdoors. There was some good news: With the passage of the USA Freedom Act, the National Security Agency is no longer allowed to spy on Americans by amassing a database of when, where, and to whom they make their telephone calls.  Remember, the NSA "bulk collection" program solved no terror plots at all.

Number 8: We all yearn for a break from the unfolding social, political and economic fiasco that is the U.S. presidential campaign. Watching cat videos may well be just what you need, according to the press release detailing the results of a study by Indiana University media researcher Jessica Gall Myrick published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Myrick's research has conclusively shown that viewers of cat videos feel more energetic and more positive; they experience fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness, after watching cat-related online media than before; and that the pleasure they get from watching cat videos outweighed any guilt they feel about procrastinating. And there are plenty to watch with more than 2 million cat videos posted on YouTube in 2014, and which garnered almost 26 billion views.

I include a relaxing video of our cat Milton Friedman below. Yes, he is boring, but he is ours. May you and yours all enjoy a very Happy and Prosperous New Year!