Five great things that happened during 2015

Science never ceases to discover new things

Every year science throws up remarkable discoveries, great advances, important decisions and new ideas, and 2015 was no different. For what it is worth here are five really good things that happened during the year just past, and they are presented in no particular order.

Innovation 2020

The Government published “Innovation 2020 Excellence Talent Impact” its strategy for research and development, science and technology. Launched last month, it lays down a plan for how the State will fund and support research in all disciplines but particularly science and technology in the coming years.

The Government was wise to allow a good amount of discussion as the document evolved so, for a change, we really do seem to have some form of consensus, at least based on the early response of the research community. The strategy remains strongly pro-industry and private sector, continuing the Government’s current approach to discovery and innovation. This demands that academia and the private sector join forces in collaborative ventures that have the potential to deliver jobs and new companies.

Wisely, however, the strategy also makes room for frontiers research, with funding arriving for blue skies science via a new programme to be run by the Irish Research Council.

It will be interesting to see how the strategy plays out in the coming months.

Nobel Prize for Irish scientist

For only the second time an Irish person has claimed a Nobel Prize in one of the sciences.

William Campbell

shared the prize for medicine or physiology with two others, with his work related to the development of a new drug for the treatment of parasitic diseases, particularly River Blindness. It doesn’t matter that he was born in Derry and spent virtually all of his adult life in the US. He grew up in

Ramelton

, Co

Donegal

and did his undergraduate degree at

Trinity College Dublin

so he is Irish through-and-through by any measure.

If the Innovation 2020 strategy really works we should be seeing lots more Nobel laureates with Irish sounding names in the coming years.

Crispr/Cas9

Some have described Crispr/Cas9 as launching a new era in molecular biology. It is a gene editing method that allows scientists to make very precise, targeted changes to the DNA of living cells. It achieves pinpoint accuracy so it takes the uncertainty out of where an edit to DNA has been made. It emerged several years ago but took off in a big way during 2015 and has received lots of media attention, so it is a bit of a cheat to include it in 2015.

This technology is going to change our lives in ways that we have not yet begun to imagine. It can be used to alter genes in plants and animals but can also be used to edit human DNA, immediately raising ethical concerns.

It could be used, for example, as a way to change faulty genes into working genes in various diseases. But it potentially could be used to make you taller, give you blue eyes or deliver a hair colour on demand – provided the genes responsible for this can be identified. Once again scientific advancement has raced ahead of our ability to develop a balanced ethical approach to its future use.

Joining Cern and Eso

This arises because of the Innovation 2020 document but is important enough to deserve separate treatment. The document stresses the importance of Ireland’s involvement in international collaborations, and this now officially includes these two important research bodies.

It has been a long battle to get the Government to accept the value and clear economic return on spending money to join them.

The strategy states that it is time for us to begin negotiating an entry deal that will open up the right of Irish scientists to participate.

Cern is Europe’s nuclear research centre, the home of the 27km long Large Hadron Collider, the particle smasher that helped discover the Higgs Boson. Eso, the European Southern Observatory, is one of the premier locations to do advanced astronomy, using the largest telescopes the world.

It is built into the mountains of Chile, hence its description as the southern observatory.

COP21

The clear success of the climate change negotiations in Paris last month suggests that the world’s governments have finally woken up to the collective threat posed by global warming. Targets were set and agreed.

Countries acquiesced to the idea of burden sharing with billions of euro being made available to help developing countries to follow through on the limits set by the Paris agreement.

Did it do enough? It delivered more than many believed it could, almost complete international acceptance that climate change is a danger to us all. It may be too little too late but at least it has the potential to stabilise warming and prevent things from getting worse.

Let’s hope for all our sakes that it is enough to make things change for the better.