The Crunch: Weapons of Science

Plus, good news on drilling in the Arctic, progress on malaria, terrorism, period poverty in Scotland, child poverty in the United States, air pollution in Europe, and ocean conservation.

The Crunch: Weapons of Science

Plus, good news on drilling in the Arctic, progress on malaria, terrorism, period poverty in Scotland, child poverty in the United States, air pollution in Europe, and ocean conservation.

We're Future Crunch, a group of science communicators from Australia who believe science and technology are the most powerful drivers of human progress. This is the free version of our newsletter. If you'd like to sign up for the premium version, you can do that here. We give one third of all subscription revenues to charity.

It's official. The UK has become the first Western nation to grant emergency-use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine. Starting next week, around 50 hospitals will begin offering the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to people over 80, and to staff in care homes and old age homes. After that, around 1,000 doctors' offices across the country will start offering vaccinations to vulnerable patients. This is just the beginning - we can expect a wave of similar announcements by other countries in the next few weeks.

The world's scientists should take a bow. They've gotten us out of a very big mess. Let's all take a moment to appreciate what they've pulled off here. While politicians, conspiracy theorists, bigots and 'freedom-loving' patriots have demonstrated some of the worst qualities of human nature this year, our scientists and healthcare workers have demonstrated some of the best. Back in March, we shared these words from journalist Farhad Manjoo. They're worth sharing again.

Let us pray, now, for science. Pray for empiricism and for epidemiology and for vaccines. Pray for peer review and controlled double-blinds. For flu shots, and washing your hands. Pray for reason, rigour and expertise. Pray for the precautionary principle. Pray for the NIH and the CDC. Pray for the WHO. And pray not just for science, but for scientists, too, as well as their colleagues in the application of science — the tireless health care workers, the whistle-blowing first responders, the rumpled, righteous public servants whose long-ignored warnings we will learn about only when the 12-part coronavirus docu-disaster series drops on Netflix. Wish them all well in the fights ahead. Their weapons, the weapons of science, are all we have left — perhaps the only true weapons our kind has ever marshalled against encroaching oblivion.

Sure enough, while most of the human family has been arguing with itself about whose fault this is, a small handful have been trying to figure out what to actually do about it. It's been an awful year, but thanks to their dedicated efforts millions of lives have been saved and deliverance is now at hand. Not only are these the quickest vaccines ever created, two of them, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, employ a brand new approach that uses a piece of genetic material called messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response.

If you think of your DNA as a book full of billions of recipes for how to make a human, then mRNA is like one of those recipes, transcribed into a loose card with vanishing ink. The vaccines work by flashing one of those recipe cards at your body, telling it to produce a totally new kind of protein, specifically, the SARS-COV-2 spike protein. Your immune cells then kick into action because they recognize this as something new and foreign. The RNA is gone in a few hours - but the immune response remains.

The beauty is that unlike more traditional vaccines that use a killed or weakened form of a virus to prompt an antibody response, at no point is there ever actually a virus inside your body.

It's an ingenious solution, built on the shoulders of generations of giants, and the result of an unprecedented 11 month collaborative effort by scientists from every corner of the planet. Of course, there's still a long way to go. These vaccines are going to take months to roll out, and we shouldn't expect smooth sailing; inevitably, there will be political mudfights, supply chain issues, and anti-vaxxer nonsense. Nothing's guaranteed. That light at the end of the tunnel sure is shining a lot brighter now though.

So thanks, science.

Good News

Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to salt the earth on their way out, all six major US banks have now ruled out financing for oil and gas development in the Arctic. This is the best kind of 'f*** you' - the result of years of pressure from the Gwich'in and Iñupiat peoples, activist shareholders, and hundreds of thousands of phone calls from conservation groups. Sierra Club

Swedish iron-ore giant, LKAB, is investing €39bn to decarbonize, the biggest transformation in the company’s 130-year history and the largest industrial investment ever made in Sweden. This might be the most important energy story of 2020 - industrial emissions are nowhere close to being solved, and this investment paves the way for desperately needed new technologies and standards.

The WHO says that malaria deaths fell to the lowest level ever recorded last year. The mortality rate has dropped by almost 60% in the last two decades, from 24.7 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 10.1 per 100,000 in 2019. Take a moment to appreciate this: 1.5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million malaria deaths have been averted globally in the period between 2000 and 2019.

COVID-19 has raised questions about whether authoritarian regimes are better at handling pandemics than democratic societies. They're not. Eight of the top 10 most successful responses have come from democracies. Success appears to rely less on being able to order people into submission, and more on governments engendering a high degree of trust and societal compliance. Bloomberg

Remember the good old days when terrorism was front page news? The 2020 Global Terrorism Index is reporting that deaths from terrorism have fallen for the fifth consecutive year. 103 countries have improved - the highest number of countries to record a year-on-year improvement since the inception of the index.

The United Nations has removed cannabis for medicinal purposes from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs. It's a big moment; a highly anticipated and long-delayed decision that will clear the way for a global expansion of marijuana research and medical use, and bolster legalization efforts around the world. The New York Times

Scotland has become the first country in the world to introduce free universal access to period products. Members of the Scottish Parliament unanimously approved the legislation, which makes access to tampons and sanitary pads in public buildings a legal right. “Scotland will not be the last country to make period poverty history – but it now has a chance to be the first." The Scotsman

Child poverty in the United States plummeted in the last decade. In 2019, 14%, or 10.5 million children, were living in poverty, down from 22%, or 16.3 million, in 2010. All major racial and ethnic groups have seen declines, with the greatest gains coming for Black and Hispanic children. The pandemic is likely to reverse some of that progress - but shouldn't take away from the achievement. Pew

Singapore has become the first country in the world to give the go-ahead to meat created without slaughtering any animals, after approving the sale of lab-grown chicken nuggets. The city state's embrace of alternative proteins isn’t limited to cultivated meat either; it's also moving swiftly to support non-animal proteins produced from plants, algae, and fungi. Straits Times

A new study has shown that air quality in Europe has improved dramatically in the past decade. Thanks to the implementation of better environmental and climate policies, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater; premature deaths have declined by about 54%. EEA

After ten years of restoration, Monserrate Hill, on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia, has been transformed from a deforested eyesore to a bird sanctuary. It now offers an oasis of calm amidst the city of 8 million people, and is home to over 115 species of birds, including 18 types of hummingbirds. Awara Musafir

hummingbird on finger
A Eriocnemis vestita hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

China's island province of Hainan has banned disposable plastic bags, packaging, meal boxes, bowls, cutlery, drink cups and straws, effective as of the 1st December 2020. Hainan has also been developing eco-friendly substitutes, and expects to spin up a complete industrial chain of fully biodegradable materials and products by 2023. The Star

The world's largest diamond company, De Beers, has committed to a major ethical overhaul in the next decade. It goals now include reaching carbon-neutrality across all global operations, full traceability of all diamonds, achieving gender parity in its workforce, supporting 10,000 female entrepreneurs, engaging 10,000 girls in STEM, and halving its water footprint by 2030. Reuters

250 years after they were stripped of their ancestral homelands, a 1,200 acre ranch has been returned to the Esselen tribe of northern California, a deal that will conserve old-growth redwoods and the California condor and red-legged frog. Guardian

Nodding blue harebells, clusters of yellow kidney vetch and flashes of bird’s-foot-trefoil will line the verges of all new large-scale road projects in England. Contractors are now obliged to create conditions for native wildflower meadows to thrive on all new verges. “It’s potentially hundreds of miles, providing ecological connectivity across the network.” Guardian

14 countries, responsible for 40% of the world’s coastlines, have signed a new pledge to end overfishing, restore fish populations and stop the flow of ocean plastic in the next 10 years. Each of the countries has also committed to making sure all oceans within their national jurisdictions, a combined area roughly the size of Africa, are managed sustainably by 2025. Guardian

The most incredible environmental group you've never heard of is called Pristine Seas. Since 2008, they've inspired the creation of 23 marine reserves - two-thirds of the world’s fully protected marine areas, covering an area of than five million square kilometers. They're now gearing up for another decade of expeditions and believe they can double what's already been accomplished. Nat Geo

graph showing protected areas

That's it for this edition, thanks for reading. We're still working out the format of the free version, so let us know what you think. Too much? Too little? We'd love to hear from you.

Also, keep an eye out for our annual end of year 99 Good News Stories list, coming in the next edition. We can't wait to put it together, it's been an insane year and we all need the reminder that there's been more to 2020 than a pandemic and an election. See you in two weeks.

With love,


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