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Portraits of David MacMillan (left) and Benjamin List (right).

David MacMillan (left) and Benjamin List share the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.Credit: Princeton University, Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy; David Ausserhofer/Max Planck Society/UPI/Shutterstock

Chemists Benjamin List and David MacMillan share this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a technique called asymmetric organocatalysis, which is widely used today for the production of drugs and other chemicals. The process relies on small organic molecules rather than big biological enzymes or compounds based on heavy metals. That makes it a cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, option for some reactions. List and MacMillan separately developed some of the first organocatalysts and showed that they can drive asymmetric catalysis, where a reaction produces more of the left-handed version of a molecule than the right-handed one, for example. This is important in fields such as medicine, where the two mirror images of a molecule can produce very different biological effects.

Nature | 5 min read

After 12 years at the helm of the top US biomedical research agency, geneticist Francis Collins will return to running his laboratory by year’s end. Collins has built a reputation as a savvy spokesperson for scientific research, winning supporters across party lines, even through a politically charged public-health crisis. He’s also recognized as a world-class scientist — although his time at the NIH hasn’t been without controversy. “I think he deserves an A+ as NIH director,” says Elias Zerhouni, a radiologist who held the job for six years, before Collins. “I know how hard it is to maintain that, and frankly I think we owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Nature | 6 min read

New Zealand’s Earth-science research agency, GNS Science, has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges laid in the wake of a devastating volcanic eruption in 2019 that left 22 people dead and 25 injured. The charges allege that the agency failed to ensure the health and safety of helicopter pilots it hired to take its employees to the island, and that its volcanic alert bulletins were insufficient.A guilty verdict could leave other scientific agencies that provide information about natural hazards, such as earthquakes, floods and wildfires, questioning what information they can provide without incurring liability.

Nature | 9 min read

In July, Sarah Frank, a recent high school graduate from Florida, posted a 56-second video on TikTok about how to make some extra cash by filling out surveys on a website used by scientists to conduct their behavioural research. Within a month, her video was viewed by 4.1 million people and sent tens of thousands of new users to the site. Instead of a typically wide mix of survey participants, the scientists now had to deal with a sudden demographic shift.

The Verge | 6 min read

Features & opinion

Poor colour choices in images and figures can distort data and make them unintelligible for people with colour blindness. The size and thickness of image elements, such as dots and lines, are important, too. Thankfully, most data visualization packages include colour maps that are accessible to people with colour vision deficiencies, and tools are available online for selecting appropriate hues.

Nature | 8 min read

Tips & tools for accessible images

• Do not use rainbow colour schemes. Use a perceptually uniform colour map, such as viridis or cividis.

• Avoid red, which is problematic for many people. Especially in combination with green or black.

• Go grey. Check your figure in greyscale, or by completely desaturating it.

• Pick a palette. Choose one that works for everyone, such as Color Universal Design or Color Blind 10 Palette, or create your own using i want hue or Viz Palette.

• Think bigger. Use features such as shapes and line textures to disambiguate colour.

• Test drive. Use a simulator such as Color Oracle or Coblis to ensure images can be interpreted accurately by everyone.

So far, the aspirations of stem-cell therapies have outpaced reality — only a handful have shown definitive efficacy. But researchers are starting to learn what makes stem cells tick. For example, scientists are investigating whether replacing lost neurons in the brain can relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Stem-cell therapies to restore sight are also advancing — researchers are using the cells to restore the cornea’s ability to heal itself and to replenish the light-sensing retina. And trials of stem-cell therapies in people with spinal-cord injuries are gradually leading scientists towards techniques that could restore movement and sensation.

Nature Outlook | Full collection

This Nature Outlook is an editorially independent supplement produced with the financial support of Bayer.

Where I work

Ocean Mercier standing outside the wharenui of the University of Wellington, decorated with wood carvings and geometric panels

Ocean Mercier is an associate professor at the Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand.Credit: Chevron Hassett for Nature

Ocean Mercier, a Māori researcher who is descended from the Ngāti Porou tribe, studies how Indigenous knowledge and Western science can help resolve environmental issues. The carvings, paintings and weavings bedecking the wharenui behind her are a library of traditional knowledge and understanding, she says. “The tongues poking from the carved faces on the meeting house might look fierce, but the Māori primarily had an oral culture, and the tongue symbolizes knowledge,” says Mercier. “We might find written reports on spring flow going back 70 years, but Māori knowledge can go back nearly 1,000 years.” (Nature | 3 min read)

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