U.S. presidential election years can feel like lost years for people who are interested in science. And the election-year summer Olympics only make it worse. Science doesn’t operate on four-year cycles — it just marches on, with discoveries, incremental advances, improved techniques, retractions, revisions, and an occasional scandal or "Eureka!" moment. But these days almost nobody is paying attention.
The only time science regularly gets worldwide notice is in October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced — the best week of the year. But that’s just a blip compared to the sustained and passionate attention people pay to presidential elections, this year more than ever.
Presidential candidates rarely talk about science. For the third election cycle in a row, major science organizations are urging the candidates, unsuccessfully, to have a debate about science policy. When candidates do talk about science, it’s often to question evolution, vaccines or climate change — questions science has thoroughly answered.
Now that the Olympics are over and there’s a relative lull in the campaigns, it’s a good time to talk about something else for a change. Here are some of our most interesting science, health and environment stories from this year that you might have missed in all the din. Please share your own favorites on Twitter with the hashtag #ICYMIScience (that first bit is for “in case you missed it”) or in the comments section below.
- Two sick workers were evacuated from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the coldest, darkest, most dangerous time of the year.
- Organs being shipped from one hospital to another for transplant are usually kept as cold as possible. But it looks like keeping the organs “alive” — warm and perfused with blood — may lead to better transplant success.
- Black-footed ferrets were close to extinction — with a population of just 18 in 1987 — but they’ve made a great comeback thanks to captive breeding, reintroduction programs and protection for their main prey: prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are susceptible to a flea-borne plague, so now U.S. Fish & Wildlife is trying to protect them by using a drone to drop peanut-butter-flavored pellets containing plague vaccine. The prairie dogs eat the pellets, are protected from the plague, and serve as ferret fodder instead.
- Scientists created a cell with the minimum number of genes necessary for life.
- A lot of people are confused and concerned about genetically modified food. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — the people you go to when you need a big question answered — analyzed the data exhaustively and concluded that there is nothing inherently dangerous about GMOs.
- Using a combination of improved imaging techniques, scientists doubled the number of distinct regions they can identify in the human brain. It’s part of an intensive recent effort to understand how the parts of the brain are interconnected, which could help diagnose neurological problems more precisely and potentially lead to new treatments.
- Cancer doctors are criticizing pediatricians and family doctors for not encouraging their patients to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV causes several kinds of cancer, and the vaccine protects people from being infected. Because the virus is sexually transmitted, doctors who treat kids may be squeamish about discussing the life-saving vaccine — and cancer doctors say that’s a dereliction of duty.
- July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.
- Robots are being developed that will you follow you around and blast you with heating or air conditioning.
- A luxury cruise ship is sailing through the once-impassable Northwest Passage.
- Babies born with microcephaly from Zika virus infections are going to need intensive, life-long support. Child development specialists are trying to figure out how to help these kids and their families.
- The teenage birth rate in the United States hit an all-time low.
- Schools across the country have dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. Their plumbing is old and water sits in pipes over the weekends and vacations, giving lead plenty of time to leach out.
- Four billionaires are in a race to take people to outer space.
- If you do go into space, the lack of gravity may distort the shape of your eye and harm your vision.
- There may be a ninth planet lurking at the edge of our solar system.