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Nature’s 10

Conceptual illustration of the number ten made out of abstract sea creatures.

Illustration: Elena Galofaro Bansh

Ten people who helped shape science in 2021

An Omicron investigator, a Mars explorer and an AI-ethics pioneer are some of the fascinating people behind the year’s big science stories. One of them is Winnie Byanyima, who left a career in aeronautical engineering to fight injustice in her home country of Uganda and is now leading UNAIDS, the United Nations agency heading the effort to end AIDS around the world. Her role taught her that the equitable distribution of life-saving drugs — such as a vaccine for COVID-19 — wouldn’t happen without putting pressure on companies and world leaders. “This idea that you can sell a life-saving health technology the way you sell a luxury handbag is not normal,” says Byanyima, who co-founded the advocacy group the People’s Vaccine Alliance to change that way of thinking.

Nature | 28 min read

Evidence of racism and inequality at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) — a prestigious 120-year-old research university — has been reported in an independent review that was commissioned by the institution last year. Fifty-two per cent of survey respondents who were people of colour said they had witnessed or experienced racism at the university, and the review heard of several instances in which the LSHTM had failed to act on complaints about racist behaviour. “It will not be a quick or easy journey, but work is already under way and this review accelerates and strengthens the change that is needed,” says Mohamed Osman, an independent member of the LSHTM’s council and chair of its diversity and inclusion committee.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: LSHTM independent review

The Arctic is warming four times as fast as the global average — much faster than even the extreme levels of warming previously reported. Researchers analysed data from NASA and the United Kingdom’s Met Office and found that the widely cited figure that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world was an underestimate. This was because models included swaths of the globe below the Arctic circle and time periods longer than 30 years ago, when conditions were very different. “Everybody knows [the Arctic] is a canary when it comes to climate change,” says climate scientist Peter Jacobs. “Yet we’re misreporting it by a factor of two. Which is just bananas.”

Science | 5 min read

A new kind of wireless electronic membrane could be used to make comfortable wearables and medical sensors. The material is even stretchier than skin and can handle high frequencies. Before now, flexible electronics could only operate at frequencies too low to be useful for many devices.

Nature | 3 min video

Reference: Nature paper

Features & opinion

The extraordinary roll-out of billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses, in such a short space of time and so soon after their unparalleled rapid development, has been a major force shaping politics, science and everyday human experience. In this graphic-led story, Nature offers a guide to the successes, failures and the impact of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.

Nature | 12 min read

Typically, decision makers draw on formal summaries of research evidence called systematic reviews, but during the pandemic these can become out of date almost immediately. We need a ‘living evidence’ approach, argue the members of a task force that produces COVID-19 guidelines for clinicians in Australia. They developed an approach to evidence synthesis that has now been adopted by the World Health Organization and by public-health bodies in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Nature | 10 min read

Evidence accelerated: Charts showing that living-evidence allows more frequent guideline update than conventional methods.

Source: Kelvin Hill, Heidi Li, Simon Turner, Jordi Elliott, Andrew Duan

Image of the week

Coloured scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of novel hierarchical 2D materials architectures.

Credit: Parvin Fathi-Hafshejani and Seyed Adib Taba, Auburn University/NanoArtography

This tropical scene is just one-quarter of a millimetre tall. It is made from molybdenum disulfide nanostructures, shaped using a laser and imaged with a scanning electron microscope. Artificial colours complete the minuscule masterpiece, which won third place in the 2021 Nanoartography competition.

See more of the year’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.

Quote of the day

Deanne Criswell, the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, responds to the tornadoes that killed dozens of people in the midwest and the south of the country last weekend. (CNN | 3 min video)

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