A New Year Marks a New Era for Science and Engineering

by Jamie Vernon | Jan 19, 2021

Jamie Vernon

A recent survey of more than 1,000 people in 14 countries that was conducted before the pandemic, then again in 11 countries during the pandemic, found that trust in science has increased to a three-year high. These results are most likely attributable to the COVID-19 response led by the scientific community, which provided public health recommendations and developed multiple vaccines to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The media emphasis on biomedical science has brought new attention to the role of science in society. While the coverage of the pandemic has dominated science news and captured the public’s attention during the past year, the research enterprise has continued to generate insights and understanding in other areas that will become more evident as the threat of COVID-19 comes under control. 

Here are a few of the things that might have been overlooked in the past year:
• SpaceX launched in May the first private vehicle to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
• New analysis of the Australian Murchison meteorite found grains of stardust that are the oldest material yet found on our planet, between 4.6 billion years and roughly 7 billion years old.
• The artificial intelligence company, DeepMind, developed an approach to predict the 3D structure of proteins faster than all other known techniques.
• NASA scientists determined that the recent unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, was likely due to a cloud of stardust emitted by the star.
• A research team at the University of Rochester created the first room-temperature superconductor from a compound of hydrogen, carbon and sulfur, paving the way for the development of zero-resistance materials that can function at lower pressures. 

These scientific achievements represent the breadth of research that advanced even as the pandemic brought much of the planet to an economic standstill. Sigma Xi continued its commitment to research by supporting hundreds of young scientists through its Grants in Aid of Research program by funding such projects as “Deciphering the role of ApoE4 in blood-brain barrier dysfunction in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease using human induced pluripotent stem cells” by Paulina Eberts of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and “Building an eyeball robot mechanism that can simulate eye movements with an eccentric preferred retinal locus in people with macular degeneration” by Kassia Love of Harvard University. We applaud the scientists and engineers who persisted with their research while simultaneously navigating the challenges created by the pandemic. 

Sigma Xi’s promise to society is to improve the human condition by supporting a strong, ethical research enterprise and sharing the fruits of scientific research with the public. We exist to ensure that the steady progression of science creates opportunities to address other challenges facing humanity. To do so, we depend on strong, ethical leadership at the highest levels of government. 

We were pleased to learn last Friday that president-elect Biden had chosen to elevate the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level position for the first time. The position will be held by Dr. Eric Lander, a mathematician and geneticist who helped map the human genome and founded the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center known for their work on the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9.  In addition, Biden has assembled a remarkable science team to lead the nation’s federal scientific enterprise. Dr. Alondra Nelson will serve as deputy director for science and society of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Dr. Maria Zuber and Dr. Frances Arnold will serve as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Dr. Francis Collins will stay on as Director of the National Institutes of Health. The team will focus on five key areas: the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, the climate crisis, industry technology advancements, and the long-term health of science and technology in the country.

With new breakthroughs, new leadership, and renewed public support for science, there is much reason for optimism as we enter this New Year.

Let us know how you feel about the prospects for science in the coming years and how Sigma Xi can play a role by contacting Sigma Xi headquarters at executiveoffice@sigmaxi.org.


Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO

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