Breakthrough of the year

Cosmic convergence

The merger of two neutron stars captivated thousands of observers and fulfilled multiple astrophysical predictions

On 17 August, scientists around the world witnessed something never seen before: One hundred and thirty million light-years away, two neutron stars spiraled into each other in a spectacular explosion that was studied by observatories ranging from gamma ray detectors to radio telescopes. The blast confirmed several key astrophysical models, revealed a birthplace of many heavy elements, and tested the general theory of relativity as never before. That first observation of a neutron-star merger, and the scientific bounty it revealed, is Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year.

Especially remarkable was the way the event was spotted: by detecting the infinitesimal ripples in space itself, called gravitational waves, that the spiraling neutron stars radiated before they merged. Scientists first detected such waves just 27 months ago, when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) sensed a space tremor from two massive black holes spiraling together in an invisible cataclysm. The discovery of gravitational waves was Science’s 2016 Breakthrough of the Year.

If that observation sounded the clarion of discovery, this year’s produced a scientific symphony. The difference comes down to matter. A black hole, the ghostly gravitational field that remains when a huge star collapses to a point, contains no matter to heat up and radiate. A neutron star, in contrast, is a ball of nearly pure neutrons, the densest stuff there is. Whereas the colliding black holes emitted nothing but gravitational energy, the neutron-star smashup put on a light show that was studied by more than 70 observatories. “The amount of information we have been able to extract with one event blows my mind,” says Laura Cadonati, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and deputy spokesperson for the LIGO team.

The gravitational waves from the twirling neutron stars tickled not only the enormous LIGO detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, but also the French-Italian Virgo detector near Pisa, Italy, which, after a 5-year upgrade, had started recording data just 17 days earlier. Researchers immediately knew they were witnessing the death spiral of two neutron stars. Unlike black-hole mergers, which produce secondslong pulses of low-frequency gravitational waves, the lighter neutron stars produced a telltale higher frequency hum that increased in frequency and strength over 100 seconds.

That crescendo cued the fireworks. Two seconds later, NASA’s orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a pulse of gamma rays called a short gamma ray burst. Then, other telescopes took aim. Because the gravitational waves were spotted by three widely spaced detectors, researchers could triangulate the neutron star pair’s location in the sky. Within 11 hours, several teams of optical and infrared astronomers had found a new beacon on the edge of the galaxy NGC 4993. Over several days, the source faded from bright blue to dimmer red. Then, after 11 days, it began to glow in x-rays and radio waves. The explosion was easily the most studied event in the history of astronomy, with 3674 researchers from 953 institutions collaborating on a single paper summarizing the merger and its aftermath.

The observations bolstered the 25-year-old hypothesis that neutron-star mergers produce short gamma ray bursts. And the reddish afterglow fit the model of a so-called kilonova, in which neutron-rich matter flung into space by colliding neutron stars hosts a chain of nuclear interactions known as the r-process. The process is thought to produce half the elements heavier than iron, and the heaviest ones would soak up blue light, tinting the glowing radioactive cloud red. “It’s been superexciting to see something that was just an idea come to life,” says Daniel Kasen of the University of California, Berkeley, who has modeled kilonovas. “All this stuff was done basically with eyes-closed theory.” The observation even bolstered Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity by confirming that gravitational waves travel at the same speed as light and not more slowly, as some alternative theories had predicted.

But the merger also poses puzzles that have whetted astrophysicists’ appetites for more data. For example, the gamma ray burst was surprisingly feeble, says Vicky Kalogera, an astrophysicist and LIGO team member at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Such bursts are thought to originate when narrow jets of material shoot out of a neutron-star merger at near–light-speed, like search beams. The simplest explanation is that the jet may not have pointed straight at Earth. However, it’s possible that astrophysicists’ model isn’t quite right and that neutron-star mergers produce only muted gamma ray bursts, Kalogera says. To resolve the issue, astrophysicists need to see more mergers.

They would also like to see the gravitational waves right up to the point at which the neutron stars spiral into each other. In this first observation, the LIGO and Virgo detectors tracked the stars whirling around each other at an accelerating pace, sending out higher and higher frequency gravitational waves. But at about 500 cycles per second, the waves’ frequency climbed out of LIGO’s sensitivity range, and the detectors couldn’t observe the final few revolutions leading up to the merger.

Those final revolutions could provide insights into the nature of neutron stars, orbs of pure nuclear matter slightly more massive than the sun but just 20 to 30 kilometers wide. Astrophysicists want to know how stiff or squishy neutron star matter is—a property encapsulated in the so-called equation of state. In principle, the gravitational waves can reveal that information: The stiffer the matter is, the larger the neutron stars will be, and the earlier they will tear each other apart as they spiral together, altering the signal. “If we want to determine the equation of state, we need to see the whole event,” says James Lattimer, a nuclear astrophysicist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. Researchers plan to increase LIGO’s sensitivity at high frequencies—for instance, by manipulating the laser light circulating in the massive detectors—but doing so may take a few years.

Scientists also hope to see new types of events, such as mergers of a neutron star and a black hole, which theory suggests are rare. Supernova explosions of individual stars in our Milky Way galaxy should also produce detectable gravitational waves, which could help astrophysicists figure out exactly how the stars blow up. Spinning neutron stars called pulsars might broadcast a steady warble of gravitational waves. In coming decades, scientists hope to launch a space-based gravitational-wave detector that could spot lower frequency waves, such as those from the mergers of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies.

Most thrilling would be a signal that astrophysicists haven’t predicted at all, says Roger Blandford, a theorist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “I’d love to see something that doesn’t fit the expectations.”


B. P. Abbott et al., GW170817: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Neutron Star InspiralPhysical Review Letters, Vol. 119, p. 161101, 16 October 2017

B. P. Abbott et al., Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star MergerThe Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 848, p.1, 16 October 2017

A. Cho, Merging neutron stars generate gravitational waves and a celestial light show, Science, 16 October 2017


Life at the atomic level

A composite cryo-EM image shows increasing resolution from left to right.

A composite cryo-EM image shows how resolution has improved in recent years. (Veronica Falconieri, Sriram Subramaniam, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health)

It is a rare innovation that earns science’s top honor at the same time as its impact continues to mount. But this was a banner year for cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique that allows scientists to create freeze-frame images of complex molecules as they interact with each other. This year, cryo-EM delivered multiple insights into the way key protein complexes work, the U.S. National Institutes of Health set up a network of cryo-EM centers around the country, and some of the pioneers of the technique were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Cryo-EM uses liquid ethane to flash freeze molecules in midmovement in water. Researchers then view them under an electron microscope and employ computer programs to sort the images and assemble the data into a coherent structure. Unlike x-ray crystallography—the gold standard of structural biology—cryo-EM doesn’t require target molecules to be crystallized, often a difficult task, and because it catches them midstride, it can reveal clues to function. The technique’s roots go back decades, but improvements in instrumentation, software to speed up image processing and analysis, and new quality standards in the works to reduce errors have helped touch off an explosion of advances.

By delivering near–atomic-resolution to structures never seen before, cryo-EM is helping explain decades of biochemical and genetic observations. This year, it gave researchers new looks at how spliceosomes—key machines for processing RNA—function, a clearer view of the proteins that remodel membranes during the life of a cell, and insights into the enzymes that fix breaks in DNA. The technology also produced high-resolution models of the tangles and plaque-forming fibrils that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and showed how the gene-editing complex CRISPR captures and manipulates DNA. And researchers pushed cryo-EM’s ability to tackle large and small molecules, solving the structures of a red alga’s gigantic light-harvesting complex and several small protein complexes that were previously out of its reach.


E. Stokstad and R. F. Service, A cold, clear view of life wins chemistry Nobel, Science, 4 October 2017

A tiny detector for the shiest particles

An image shows a prototype of a neutrino detector.

A prototype of a detector that spotted coherent neutrino scattering for the first time. (Jean Lachat/University of Chicago)

This year, physicists spotted the most elusive subatomic particles, neutrinos, pinging off atomic nuclei in a new way. The achievement fulfilled a 4-decade-long quest, and it didn’t require the massive hardware usually used to detect neutrinos. Instead, the researchers pulled off the feat with a portable detector that weighs about as much as a microwave oven.

Generated in certain nuclear processes, neutrinos interact with other matter so rarely that countless numbers stream right through Earth. Occasionally, though, a neutrino will strike a neutron in an atomic nucleus, changing it into a proton, while itself morphing into a detectable particle such as an electron. Or it will simply ricochet off a proton or a neutron, sending the nucleus flying. Both interactions are so rare that detectors must contain many tons of target matter—physicists have used materials ranging from iron to dry-cleaning fluid—just to spot a handful of them. In 1974, however, theorists predicted that if a neutrino’s energy was low enough, it would act as a quantum wave and reflect off all the nucleus’s protons and neutrons at once. Such “coherent scattering” should hugely increase the probability of an interaction, but the low-energy recoil of the nucleus would be difficult to detect.

This year, the 81-member COHERENT collaboration spotted the long-sought coherent scattering. They used a 14.6-kilogram detector made from a large crystal of sodium-doped cesium iodide, which flashes with light when a nucleus within it recoils. They exposed it to neutrinos generated by the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, whose energy was low enough to produce coherent scattering but high enough to produce detectable recoils.

Such small neutrino detectors might someday help monitor nuclear reactors, for example to ensure they are running according to nuclear nonproliferation regulations, or search for even-more-elusive “sterile neutrinos.” By comparing coherent neutrino scattering from different nuclei, physicists might also probe nuclear structure in a new way. But the amped-up scattering also has a downside: As physicists try to detect particles of cosmic dark matter with ever-more-sensitive detectors, the coherent scattering of neutrinos from the sun will become a source of interference.


D. Akimov et al., Observation of coherent elastic neutrino-nucleus scatteringScience, Vol. 357, p. 1123, 15 September 2017

Deeper roots for Homo sapiens

An image shows a computer reconstruction of a fossil human skull.

A computer reconstruction of 300,000-year-old fossils from Jebel Irhoud. (© PHILIPP GUNZ, MPI EVA LEIPZIG/CC BY SA)

A long-overlooked skull from a cave in Morocco pushed back the fossil record of our species, Homo sapiens, and energized the study of modern human origins this year. Researchers determined that the skull is a startling 300,000 years old—about 100,000 years older than fossils from Ethiopia that had held the record as the oldest widely accepted remains of archaic H. sapiens.

The skull, discovered in 1961 by miners, was long thought to belong to an African Neandertal because it had some primitive traits found in Neandertals and other archaic members of our genus Homo. Radiometric dating on one of its teeth had suggested it was 160,000 years old.

But the skull also showed some modern features, such as a face that tucked beneath the skull rather than projecting forward, which intrigued paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He wondered whether it actually belonged to a very early member of H. sapiens. If so, it would have to be much older than its discoverers thought.

Hublin’s team re-excavated the collapsed cave at Jebel Irhoud, 100 kilometers west of Marrakesh, Morocco, hoping to redate a small chunk of intact sediment from the layer that yielded the skull. They got the sediment and a bonus—more fossils of partial skulls, jaws, teeth, and limb bones from at least five individuals.

By applying a technique called thermoluminescence dating to flint tools found with the fossils, they determined that the tools were 280,000 to 350,000 years old. That fit with a new date of 286,000 years from improved radiometric dating of a tooth. Those dates fit with a study of Africans’ DNA that found H. sapiens arose at least 300,000 years ago.

Hublin’s team thinks the Jebel Irhoud people were part of a large, interbreeding population of early H. sapiens that spread across Africa 330,000 to 300,000 years ago and evolved into modern humans. That would make our African roots deeper and wider than previously believed—a possibility that has reinvigorated the search for new fossils of our species’s earliest members.


J. Hublin et al., New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens, Nature, Vol. 546, p. 289, 8 June 2017

Pinpoint gene editing

An image shows letters representing DNA and RNA bases.

A CRISPR spinoff can change bases in DNA and RNA. (Shaury Nash/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0)

More than 60,000 genetic aberrations have been linked to human diseases, and nearly 35,000 of them are caused by the tiniest of errors: a change in just one DNA base at a specific point in the genome. This year, researchers announced a major improvement of a nascent technique, called base editing, to correct such point mutations, not just in DNA, but in RNA as well. Researchers are already exploiting the advance, and it ultimately may lead to medical applications.

Pioneered by David Liu, a chemist at Harvard University, base editing borrows from CRISPR, the “molecular scissors” that debuted as a powerful lab tool in 2012. CRISPR excels at cutting DNA at specific locations and introducing errors that shut down genes. But it has had spotty success in fixing mistakes such as point mutations, where one of DNA’s four nucleotide bases—A, C, T, and G—has been substituted for another. Liu’s group modified CRISPR’s toolbox to create a base editor that unzips but does not cut DNA at a target location and chemically replaces one base with another. Last year, Liu and co-workers converted an aberrant C into a T, and this year they succeeded in replacing an incorrect G—the most common point mutation—into an A. A separate team led by Feng Zhang of the nearby Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated that base editing could change a G to an A in RNA.

Chinese researchers demonstrated the power of base editing this year by fixing a disease-causing point mutation in human embryos. They never intended to implant the embryos, and the repair was not always successful, but the feat proved that base editing has what they called “tremendous potential”—and that CRISPR is a gift that keeps on giving.


N. Gaudelli et al.Programmable base editing of A•T to G•C in genomic DNA without DNA cleavageNature, Vol. 551, p. 464, 23 November 2017

D. Cox et al.RNA editing with CRISPR-Cas13Science, 10.1126/science.aaq0180, 25 October 2017

H. Ma et al.Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryosNature, Vol. 548, p. 413, 24 August 2017

Biology preprints take off

An illustration shows several scientists viewing a bulletin board.


For decades, biologists sat on the sidelines as their colleagues in physics routinely shared draft manuscripts online before they were published in a peer-reviewed journal. But preprint sharing in biology took off this year, as thousands of life scientists posted their unreviewed papers online and funders threw their weight behind this mode of scientific communication.

The stage was set 4 years ago when Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York launched the free biology preprint server, bioRxiv. A trickle of bioRxiv papers in computational biology grew to include experimental studies in fields from microbiology to cell biology and neuroscience. Prominent life scientists fanned out to persuade their colleagues that preprints speed the pace of science and help young investigators build a research record.

Early this year, organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom issued policies encouraging preprint sharing, giving the practice a major boost. In April, a new philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, announced an undisclosed investment in bioRxiv, bolstering its position as biology’s most popular server. Most journals now allow authors to post their submitted papers as preprints; some editors search bioRxiv for papers to publish.

The movement still has a long way to go. The 1500 or so biology preprints posted each month on bioRxiv and other servers make up only about 1.5% of the roughly 100,000 new papers added to PubMed, the biological abstracts database. (By contrast, about 70% of particle physics papers appear first as preprints.) And many life scientists aren’t comfortable sharing work that hasn’t received peer reviewers’ stamp of approval. Still, “It’s amazing how rapidly things have changed,” says preprint advocate and cell biologist Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s a major cultural change in communication.”


J. Kaiser, Are preprints the future of biology? A survival guide for scientistsScience, 29 September 2017

A cancer drug’s broad swipe

An image shows colon cancer cells.

Colon cancer cells; any solid cancer with a particular mutation can now be treated with pembrolizumab. (Steve Gschmeissner/Science Source)

It’s been a long time coming: a cancer drug that slays disease based not on the organ where it originated, but on its DNA. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greenlighted the first such treatment, called pembrolizumab. Manufactured by Merck and branded Keytruda, the drug, which had already been approved to treat melanoma and a handful of other tumor types, can now be prescribed for any advanced solid tumor in children or adults, on one condition: The cancer cells must carry a defect that goes by the awkward name of “mismatch repair deficiency.” This means that whether the cells turned cancerous in the pancreas, the colon, the thyroid, or any one of a dozen other tissues, they are riddled with mutations in genes that repair DNA.

The FDA approval signifies a big shift for the field. That’s because tumors that arise in different organs may have more in common than those growing in the same place—but turning that knowledge into treatments hasn’t been easy. A breakthrough came in 2015, when doctors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, led by Luis Diaz (now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City), studied pembrolizumab in colon cancer patients. They noticed something striking: Tumors in eight out of 13 people with mismatch repair deficiency shrank and those in four others remained stable on the drug, an “immune checkpoint inhibitor” that revs up the immune system to fight cancer. Twenty-five other colon cancer patients without the defect didn’t respond to treatment. Doctors theorized that because cells with the deficiency accumulate hundreds of mutations, the immune system more easily recognizes the diseased cells as foreign, and kills them.

A study published in June by Diaz, Dung Le at Johns Hopkins, and many others expanded testing to 86 seriously ill patients with 12 different cancers, all of which had mismatch repair deficiency. Fifty-three percent responded to the drug. Based partly on this work, FDA gave its stamp of approval—one that oncologists hope will be the first of many for this cancer-fighting strategy.


D. Le, et. al.PD-1 blockade in tumors with mismatch-repair deficiencyThe New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 372, p. 2509, 30 May 2015

D. Le et al., Mismatch-repair deficiency predicts response of solid tumors to PD-1 blockadeScience, 10.1126/science.aan6733, 8 June 2017

A new great ape species

An image shows an orangutan of the Pongo tapanuliensis family.

Pongo tapanuliensis is the first new species of great ape identified since the bonobo in 1929. (MAXIME ALIAGA)

Welcome to the family, Pongo tapanuliensis. It’s been nearly 90 years since scientists last discovered a new living species of Hominidae, the great apes, so it was cause for celebration in November, when researchers debuted a third species of orangutan. Just one small population survives in a threatened forest in Indonesia, adding a dose of worry to the welcome.

Until this year, bonobos, chimpanzees, two species of gorillas, a pair of orangutans, and humans constituted the sum total of the great ape family. The new orangutan species lives on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, south of the range of one of the previously known orangutan species. The other lives on Borneo. Identified based on DNA, anatomy, and ecological clues, the new species was named for the district of Tapanuli, where it lives in the Batang Toru forest.

A comparison of the genomes of the three species provided insights into the evolutionary history of orangutans. The ancestor of current orangutans presumably spread from Malaysia to Indonesian islands several million years ago, when the sea was low enough to expose land bridges. About 3.4 million years ago, according to the new research, orangutans on northern Sumatra split from those on Borneo and southern Sumatra, but it wasn’t until 674,000 years ago that the orangutans on southern Sumatra diverged from the Borneo orangutans to become P. tapanuliensis. What drove these speciations isn’t known, but eruptions of a massive volcano some 73,000 years ago likely increased the separation of the two Sumatran species, and eventually all interbreeding ceased.

Grave dangers await. Only about 800 individuals of P. tapanuliensis survive in an isolated forest. A road divides the 1100-square-kilometer habitat, which is being whittled away by illegal deforestation, despite official protection. A planned hydroelectric dam is the latest threat. Conservationists hope that recognizing the beleaguered population as a new species will bring greater attention to its plight.


A. Nater et al., Morphometric, Behavioral, and Genomic Evidence for a New Orangutan SpeciesCurrent Biology, Vol. 27, p. 3498F, 20 November 2017

Earth’s atmosphere 2.7 million years ago

An image shows ancient ice cores.

Ancient ice cores containing trapped gases drilled from the Allan Hills of Antarctica. (Yuzhen Yan)

At the bottom of the world, frozen in ice, are portals to another time: tiny bubbles of Earth’s ancient atmosphere. This August, a team led by researchers from Princeton University and the University of Maine in Orono announced they had recovered Antarctic ice that froze 2.7 million years ago. That’s 1.7 million years older than any previous ice sample, and it pushes back the direct atmospheric record to a pivotal time in the planet’s climate history.

The ice comes from the Allan Hills, a desolate region of Antarctica where severe winds strip away snow and young ice to reveal dense, lustrous layers of ancient ice. The oldest core, which the team drilled in 2015, comes from a time when the first ice ages were just underway, taking place at intervals of 40,000 years rather than 100,000 years, as in the modern era.

In search of clues to what triggered the climate shift, the researchers measured captured gases in the cores. Interpreting the gas record was a challenge: Unlike traditional Antarctic ice cores, which have a layer-cake stratigraphy, this one is much more jumbled. Early analyses indicate that at the start of the ice ages, carbon dioxide levels stayed below 300 parts per million (ppm)—well below today’s 400 ppm. That is at odds with some proxy records from that time that indicate higher levels, but it validates climate models predicting that such low concentrations were necessary to tip the planet into its ice age cycle.

The scientists have proposals pending to revisit the Allan Hills to drill more cores, and they hope the region will eventually yield ice dating back to 5 million years ago, when greenhouse conditions on Earth resembled what humanity is creating today.


P. Voosen, Record-shattering 2.7-million-year-old ice core reveals start of the ice agesScience, 15 August 2017

Gene therapy triumph

An  image shows a little girl running.

Evelyn Villarreal, after treatment for spinal muscular atrophy type 1 with a new gene therapy. (MIKE SHANAHAN)

A dramatic success in a small clinical trial buoyed the field of gene therapy this year.

Researchers reported that they had saved the lives of babies born with a fatal inherited neuromuscular disease by adding a missing gene to their spinal neurons. If left untreated, the babies would have died by about age 2. The trial also marks a broader milestone, because the researchers delivered the new gene across the membrane that protects the brain and spinal cord from blood-borne pathogens and toxins. That feat could open the door to using gene therapy to treat other neurodegenerative diseases.

The key was a harmless virus, called adeno-associated virus (AAV), that is widely used in gene therapy to ferry genes to target cells. In 2009, groups in France and at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that a type called AAV9 given intravenously to newborn mice can spread through the brain and spinal cord.

Now, Nationwide researchers have shown that intravenous AAV9 gene therapy can stop spinal muscular atrophy 1 (SMA1), the most common genetic cause of death in infants. Newborns with SMA1 lack a protein needed by motor neurons in the spinal cord; the babies’ muscles weaken and eventually they cannot breathe. In November, the Nationwide team and the company AveXis reported that all but one of 12 babies who received a high dose of AAV9 carrying the gene for the missing protein can talk, eat, and sit at least briefly on their own. One girl can walk fast, and a boy is running. A new drug has achieved similar results, but it must be injected into the spine every few months.

Researchers are now using infusions of AAV9 carrying other genes to treat children with severe inherited brain disorders. In the past, researchers had to bore holes in the skull to deliver gene therapy to these children, and it didn’t do much to help.

The SMA1 results follow other gene therapy advances this year. Two cancer treatments in which a patient’s immune cells are genetically modified outside their bodies and then reinjected became the first gene therapies to reach the U.S. market. And on 19 December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first gene therapy for a rare inherited disorder that causes blindness.


J. Kaiser, Gene therapy’s new hope: A neuron-targeting virus is saving infant livesScience, 1 November 2017

J. Mendell et al.Single-Dose Gene-Replacement Therapy for Spinal Muscular AtrophyThe New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 377, p. 1713, 2 November 2017


Trump and scientists: an epic estrangement

An image shows March for Science protesters.

The March for Science was a big success, but did it widen the gulf? (B. Douthitt/Science)

As President Donald Trump nears the end of his first year in office, the relationship between the maverick Republican and the U.S. research community is deeply dysfunctional. It’s a breakdown of epic proportions, with no obvious fix.

One reason for the estrangement is Trump’s action on science-related issues: He has renounced the 2015 Paris climate accord, rolled back many environmental rules, and called for deep budget cuts at key research agencies. In addition, many scientists are alarmed by research-related appointments he has—and has not—made. At press time, there was still no White House science adviser, and Trump has chosen several people to oversee federal research programs who lack serious scientific credentials.

These developments have fueled perceptions that the president and his top advisers don’t care about science or value its contributions to improving the nation’s health, prosperity, and security. If true, that would be a marked reversal from the support that science generally has received from generations of policymakers of both parties.

Combined with the personal antipathy that many scientists feel toward the president, his apparent disregard for science appears to have soured the appetite of many scientific leaders for a role in this administration. An informal Science survey of 66 prominent U.S. scientists found that half would refuse an offer to work for Trump. That’s a surprisingly high percentage, given the historically positive attitude among the community for public service. At the same time, four in five said they would consider an invitation to serve on a high-level scientific advisory panel. (Democrats make up half the respondents; 40% are independents, and 10% are Republicans.)

Many of the scientists surveyed report being torn between a desire to provide the government with the best possible advice on scientific issues and a concern that their efforts would be for naught. “I am having a hard time figuring out how to interact with the Trump administration,” admits Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president emerita of Princeton University. “I had no difficulties with prior Republican administrations because, despite our policy differences, I had faith in their fundamental integrity and commitment to scientific inquiry,” says Tilghman, a Democrat. “I do not have the same confidence in the Trump administration.”

“It’s critical that scientists work with [the White House] in setting priorities for the president’s science budget and providing advice,” says Arden Bement, a Republican who was director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, under former President George W. Bush. “Unfortunately, providing science advice to a president who resists advice, would not understand it, or would distort it for personal and political reasons would be futile and frustrating.”

It’s difficult to generalize about the research policies of any president, given the complexity of the government’s $150-billion-a-year science investments. On the one hand, Trump’s decision to retain National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and NSF Director France Córdova has given many scientists hope that academic research will remain relatively unscathed during his administration. And other Trump choices—including Scott Gottlieb as head of the Food and Drug Administration, Brenda Fitzgerald as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Jerome Adams as U.S. surgeon general—are generally viewed as mainstream appointees who understand and support their agency’s work.

But scientists have decried some Trump picks. The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy (DOE), Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, respectively, are generally seen as hostile to their agency’s scientific missions. And many believe Trump’s choice to lead NASA, Representative James Bridenstine (R–OK), would be a step toward politicizing the space agency. Researchers were appalled by the nomination of Sam Clovis to oversee the Department of Agriculture’s research division. (A political operative with no scientific credentials, Clovis withdrew after becoming entangled in the investigations into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election.)

Trump has been slow to fill many positions, so it would be wrong to say science has been singled out for neglect. But many see the lack of a nominee for head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who traditionally has also served as the president’s science adviser, as especially troublesome. At the same time, they’d prefer no nominee over someone who’s not qualified. And some fear the position might be irrelevant if the president believes he doesn’t need a science adviser.

Of course, no president calls all the shots in Washington, D.C. Congress has largely dismissed Trump’s 2018 request for significantly smaller budgets at NSF, NIH, and several other science agencies. And that response should be a call to action, says Cherry Murray, a physicist at Harvard University who led DOE’s Office of Science during former President Barack Obama’s administration. “It’s very important that the U.S. science community step up their interaction with the authorization and appropriation committees of both the House [of Representatives] and Senate and not just focus on the executive branch,” she argues.

Although some see increased activism as a key to repairing science’s broken relationship with the White House, researchers are still debating the impact of the unprecedented March for Science this spring. Some say it was an effective way to mobilize public support, whereas others believe it has exacerbated the breach.

A conclave last month at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., on the partnership between government and academia illustrated the current sorry state of affairs. In 2008, scientists attending a similar meeting applauded talks by three Cabinet secretaries serving Bush, whose policies many in the audience found anathema. But this time around, not a single representative of the Trump administration attended the all-day meeting, although several were invited. And nary a word was spoken in favor of the administration’s policies toward research.

A bad year for cetaceans

An image shows a vaquita.

The vaquita is on the verge of extinction after a rescue plan failed. (Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures)

A long-shot attempt to save a small porpoise called the vaquita, which lives only in the Gulf of California, had to be abandoned this year. In October, the Mexican government and an international team set up a sea pen to protect some of the 30 remaining individuals, which are threatened by fishing nets, but the death of a captured female brought an end to the $5 million effort. Now, only fishing bans—which haven’t worked so far—can save the vaquita from extinction. Meanwhile, new analyses of North Atlantic right whale populations and the deaths of 17 whales this year prompted grave concerns about the future of that species. Fewer than 100 reproductive females remain, and entanglements in nets take a much bigger toll than researchers had previously realized. Other reports documented new risks to narwhals: Diminishing sea ice makes these once-isolated Arctic marine mammals more vulnerable to killer whales and to shipping and other human activities. Finally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its Red List standings for Asia’s Irrawaddy dolphin and finless porpoise from vulnerable to endangered and critically endangered, respectively.


E. Pennisi, After death of captured vaquita, conservationists call off rescue effortScience, 9 November 2017

E. Pennisi, The North Atlantic right whale faces extinctionScience, 7 November 2017

#MeToo: sexual harassment in science

An image shows protesters at a rally.

A rally at Boston University against sexual harassment. (Tab Media Inc.)

This year, high-profile cases of sexual harassment and discrimination continued to roil the scientific community, as female scientists went public with allegations of horrific behavior. In September, two senior female scientists filed a lawsuit against the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, alleging that an “old boys club” steered institutional funds and research space away from women. In a case publicized in October, a former graduate student accused Boston University geologist David Marchant of misogyny and serious sexual harassment during a field trip in Antarctica in the late 1990s. A university investigation upheld some of the charges; Marchant is appealing. And in December, nine linguists filed suit against the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York, saying it had retaliated against them for their complaints about linguist T. Florian Jaeger, who was accused of preying sexually on students. U of R initially cleared Jaeger, but has opened a new investigation.

Scientific organizations are finally giving the problem some high-level attention. The National Academy of Sciences plunged into a study, due out next year, on the impact of sexual harassment on women’s careers. And in September, the 60,000-member American Geophysical Union made sexual harassment a form of misconduct on par with research fraud, and established a mechanism for investigating claims and sanctioning offenders.

“This is the reckoning stage,” said anthropologist Kate Clancy of the University of Illinois in Urbana, who has studied harassment during fieldwork. The unfolding of case after case brought “a weird mix of emotions,” she said. “Satisfaction that we’re moving in the right direction, and frustration that it took so long.”


M. Wadman, Leaked documents expose long-standing gender tensions at Salk InstituteScience, 23 August 2017

M. Wadman, A cold caseScience, Vol. 358, p. 16, 13 October 2017

M. Wadman, Boston University geologist fights for his jobScience, Vol. 358, p. 1114, 1 December 2017

V. Wang, Rochester Launches New Inquiry Into Harassment AccusationsThe New York Times, 20 September 2017