Sitting down to write this editorial, I thought I would look back at the one I wrote for our first issue of 2020 to get a sense, at the end of an extremely unpredictable and disconcerting year, of how I was feeling going into it. “In those halcyon days of boyhood, one date stuck in my mind as ‘the future’—2020,” I wrote in The Scientist’s January/February 2020 issue. “That year, difficult to imagine but endlessly entertaining to dream about, was when everything would be different. World peace would be a reality. Technology would solve humanity’s and the planet’s ailments. And yes, cars would fly.”
I knew that my childish fantasies had failed to materialize well in advance of last January, but early in the year I had no idea how wrong I would be about 2020. This year has shown us all that, despite humanity’s decades of scientific, technological, and social progress, nature (human and otherwise) still harbors the power to bring us to our knees. We also learned that the time required to go from futuristic dream to dystopian nightmare is the veritable blink of an eye.
I, like the rest of us, have been trying my best to cope with the harsh new realities of the worst infectious disease pandemic in a century. One of the things that buoyed my spirit in the darkest hours was the sense that the life science community was rising to the challenge of COVID-19, with several labs pivoting to study the disease and the virus that causes it; drug companies and independent scientists speeding the development of tests, treatments, and vaccines; and researchers anticipating the need to study the societal and mental health effects of the pandemic. Other times, despondency took over, as news of publication misconduct surrounding COVID-19 broke and it became apparent that, in some countries, policy and science regarding the appropriate path toward coronavirus mitigation were seriously out of step.
Still, as I reflect on 2020, I see the heartbeat of research pulsing through the turmoil, even when science was sidelined, ignored, or contravened. Evidence of discovery in the face of numerous challenges can be seen in the pages of this issue, where we highlight the winners of our annual Top 10 Innovations competition (see page 38). Several of the winning submissions—including a rapid and portable SARS-CoV-2 test and antibody kits to help characterize the plasma of patients who have recovered from COVID-19, to name but a couple—address the pandemic head-on. Other winning products represent advanced development of tried-and-true laboratory technologies, such as microfluidics and single-cell analyses, that could potentially help battle the scourge of COVID-19.
And in mid-November, as I write this piece, news broke about the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines being reportedly more than 90 percent effective in Phase 3 trials. These results are preliminary, but the scientific community and the world are responding with all the hope and positivity that one might expect.
It is my sincere hope that 2021 will be a better year than 2020. If this is to happen, research must continue to forge ahead, unimpeded by politicization and supported by the public, governments, and private parties alike. Never before has it been clearer that evidence, logic, and science are the keys to delivering us from the suffering of the past several months and the months to come.
We at The Scientist look forward to a new year and to following and reporting on the innovation and discovery that rise from the ashes of 2020. There will be much to keep tabs on, from continued vaccine development and testing to the long-term biological impacts of COVID-19. As case numbers rise around the world, and especially in the US, we know that there are more challenges and heartbreak ahead. But we will keep a close eye on the possible paths out of this pandemic, with science as our touchstone and navigator.