What’s ahead for science in 2020? Here’s what we’re watching

Mars 2020 rover

The Mars 2020 rover (shown in this illustration) will search for evidence that the Red Planet once hosted life.

JPL-Caltech/NASA

With a new year comes new science. Here’s a look at the events, projects and findings our reporters are watching — or wishing — for in 2020.

Cosmic clarity

When astronomy writer Lisa Grossman and physics writer Emily Conover predicted in 2018 that the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, would soon capture an image of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the Milky Way’s center, they were half right. EHT’s first image came through in 2019, but it was of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87. Grossman and Conover have their fingers crossed that Sagittarius A* gets its big moment in 2020.

Another cosmic recluse, dark matter, might also come into view in 2020. The LUX-Zeplin, or LZ, experiment, housed in a former gold mine in South Dakota, will begin its search for WIMPs, weakly interacting massive particles. These still-theoretical particles “have been the favored candidate for an explanation of dark matter,” Conover says. Other searches have failed, but LZ will be 20 times as sensitive as previous WIMP searches. 

Space explorers

Grossman looks forward to the midyear launches of two Mars missions: NASA’s Mars 2020 and ExoMars, a joint mission of the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The missions’ rovers will search for signs of past life. NASA’s robotic explorer will also gather rocks for collection by a potential future mission that would bring bits of the Red Planet to Earth.

Physical sciences writer Maria Temming is meanwhile preparing for a more distant visitor. This year, astronomers identified the second known interstellar object in the solar system (SN: 11/9/19, p. 13), what appears to be a comet. (The first visitor, ‘Oumuamua, was spotted in 2017.) Estimates suggest that such guests should show up about once every year, Temming says.

Drug watch

Biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham expects results from a clinical trial of a male birth control pill. An early test found that the hormonal pill is safe and suppresses hormone levels necessary for sperm production (SN: 4/14/18, p. 10). The new study will assess how well the pill does the job.

A potential drug for Alzheimer’s disease called aducanumab may move closer to approval. Pharmaceutical company Biogen is expected to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the drug — “a move that promises to be controversial, considering the drug’s checkered past,” says neuroscience writer Laura Sanders. Aducanumab made our Top 10 list in 2016 after early studies suggested the drug can clear the amyloid-beta plaques seen in Alzheimer’s (SN: 12/24/16 & 1/7/17, p. 27). But later results were disappointing, until recent reports that the highest dose of the drug seemed to slow memory decline (SN Online: 12/5/19).

The molecular level

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies could cause their own controversy, predicts molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey. Many of these companies, such as AncestryDNA, are expanding their services to offer more information about health, and the FDA may crack down on the kind of info that can be provided, Saey says.

Behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower expects molecular biology to play a bigger role in human evolution studies. Increasingly, researchers are supplementing studies of ancient DNA extracted from hominid fossils with analyses of extracted proteins, which preserve better in fossilized bones and teeth than DNA does, he says. As with DNA, proteins can help identify new species and untangle evolutionary relationships.

Science and politics

2020 will be a big year for science and policy. The U.S. Census is being offered online for the first time, and field-workers visiting the homes of those who don’t respond will log their responses on smartphones. Social sciences writer Sujata Gupta wonders how that will turn out. “A lot of people still lack reliable access to the internet, so will that lead to an undercount? And among whom? What about cyberattacks?”

The effect of politics on wildlife is on the minds of life sciences writers Susan Milius and Jonathan Lambert. As the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity comes to an end in 2020, a draft report says that the world missed most of the decade’s targets, Milius says. She’s watching to see how experts regroup. For Lambert, changes to how the U.S. Endangered Species Act is applied, announced by President Donald Trump’s administration in August, spark questions about the future of certain species.

grizzly bear
Grizzly bears have benefited from protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Changes to how the law is applied may limit species’ protections.Jill Richardson/iStock/Getty Images Plus

By the end of 2020, “the world may get a glimpse of just how committed to combating climate change nations are,” says earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling. In 2015, signatories to the Paris climate treaty agreed to hold global warming by 2100 to well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels. But current carbon-cutting pledges won’t get us there. In December 2020, countries are required to submit updated emissions targets. The U.S. exit from the agreement will be finalized in November 2020, but the U.S. presidential election that month could determine whether the country re-enters the treaty in 2021.

Erin Wayman

Erin Wayman is the magazine managing editor. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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