More than 40 years after the final Apollo missions, it's prime time for deep space travel again, and Mars is in our sights, Tabitha M. Powledge writes: "There’s a planet that’s truly nearby, one that with some work could sustain life-as-we-know it, one with water and enough sunlight for food crops, one that, with some improvements in current spacecraft technologies, we could get to after a journey of only nine months or so and within the lifetimes of most of us."
About those seven Earthlike planets orbiting a nearby star: They're neither nearby nor especially Earthlike, Tabitha M. Powledge writes: "Not to denigrate the scientific achievement, which is noteworthy for its novelty and sophistication … But let’s bring a little reality to the boisterous celebration attending the revelation that astronomers have discovered at least 7 'Earthlike' planets orbiting the 'nearby' star TRAPPIST-1." Also, a mini-march for science at AAAS.
The National Academy of Science has weighed in on genome editing with "a sane report on prospects for editing the human genome," Tabitha M. Powledge writes: "I’d characterize it as a flashing yellow light, or nearly so, at least by comparison with the position an NAS-sponsored group took in December 2015. At that time, the recommendation was strongly against germline modification for any reason." Also: A bombshell decision by the U.S. Patent Office.
Not everybody is on board with the idea of scientists marching on Washington in April, Tabitha M. Powledge writes: "Some in science oppose it, and a great many others are unsure whether they approve or not. Will a March accomplish anything good? Or will it be bad for science public relations — and perhaps provoke the TrumPets to (horrors!) cut science funding?" Also: Is Congress trying to sabotage Obamacare?
Those new human-pig chimeras that Salk Institute researchers came up with don't really have many human cells at all, Tabitha M. Powledge writes: "Which may be just as well, because it’s also going to take a really long time to resolve the ethical/political objections to creating the hybrids. If ever. Even though the supply of human organs available with current systems for transplant is not enough and never will be."
Tabitha M. Powledge rounds up reports of scientists being muzzled by early directives from Trump administration appointees, and points out that, at least in the case of a cancelled CDC meeting on climate change, the gag order may have been self-imposed: "Just one more example of the chilling effect on global warming. In politics, once the Dear Leader’s wishes are known, some hirelings will rush to gratify them without being asked."
There are lots of rumors and few firm facts to work with when it comes to science and health policy in the infant Trump administration. So Tabitha M. Powledge reviews the nominees to date and their positions on major issues, and ruminates about others: "Nothing much has been said so far about a Trump Science Adviser, although it is thought that a climate-change skeptic is not out of the question — even if it’s not Sarah Palin."
Tabitha M. Powledge covers, to the extent possible, the outlook for climate science, the Affordable Care Act, and vaccines in a Trump administration: "I’ve been putting off writing about what the TrumPets will do to science and medicine because it’s been so unclear. That’s still true, but what with the inauguration almost upon us, it seems important to lay out some of the possibilities — even though real plans are still a mystery. Assuming there are any real plans."
Tabitha M. Powledge pulls together best-of-2016 lists from sources as far-flung as Cosmos,New Scientist, Space.com, LiveScience, the New York Times,Wired, and Retraction Watch to mark a final end to a year that not too many people are likely to miss. Of the stories, she writes: "At least some were encouraging. Still, many believe that 2016 has concluded not a moment too soon, and are finding it hard to summon optimism about what lies ahead in 2017. Anyway."
Tabitha M. Powledge speculates on what's ahead for America in space: "It seems likely to nearly everybody that the TrumPets will try to get rid of NASA’s work on climate change, given that Trump has declared it to be a Chinese hoax and surrounded himself with fossil fuelers. But what will they do about space? Sending a (successful) manned mission to Mars would probably Make America Great Again. But it couldn’t be carried out in the lifetime of a Trump administration."