From superstorms to sequestration, 2013 held progress and pitfalls for science

Concerns about energy, climate change and warmer oceans creating stronger storms moved front and center in 2013. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien joins Judy Woodruff to review the year's big developments and science headlines, including new ways to attack cancer, the latest in space exploration and the impact of funding cuts.


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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to a wrap-up of progress and potential pitfalls in the world of science.

Before she left for vacation, Judy Woodruff recorded our conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a year when concerns over energy and rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions moved front and center again. Domestic oil production reached record high levels, but due in no small part to drilling techniques have that raised worries and anger over possible consequences.

It came as the U.N. reported another milestone. Scientists said that global carbon dioxide levels reached their highest levels in recorded history. This was also the year that researchers said they are finding ways to get the body's immune system to attack cancers in small numbers of patients.

The NewsHour science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, is here, and he fills out the picture.

Miles, it's good to have you with us in person.

MILES O’BRIEN: Thank you. Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the first development you highlight, the energy revolution, is kind of remarkable, because it seems like just yesterday policy-makers worried about needing more oil, needing to import oil. But the picture has changed.

MILES O’BRIEN: It's breathtaking how quickly things can change.

What we are talking about is energy independence in the next few years. But 2015, the experts say, the U.S. will be the largest energy producer in the world. I mean, that's a -- when you think of what we want through in the '70s in this country, that's a staggering statement.

And this all goes to the root of hydraulic fracturing, which is a technology that has been around since the '40s, but has matured to the point where it is deriving tremendous output for U.S. sources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it has an effect on the lives of ordinary people?

MILES O’BRIEN: It does.

You know, it goes across the board, when you think of the economic implications. There's talk of a manufacturing renaissance in this country. It changes geopolitics in a significant way. Does the Pentagon need to defend the Strait of Hormuz like it once did? It cuts across a lot of things. There's a lot of potential upside.

But as you well know, there is a big downside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're hearing more about that, the environmental concern.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, there is a flip side to all this.

You know, all this, the upside, talking about the economy is one thing. But when you consider the environmental impact, there is a lot to think about. And this year, scientists released a study which definitively linked a series of earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio, to hydraulic fracturing.

That is the first time those dots have been connected in this way. Intuitively, you would think, well, when you think about the process, drilling down and horizontally, injecting water and sand and other chemicals in order to pull the natural gas and the oil out, you would stand to reason that this might cause earthquakes.

But this is a concern when you think about that potential and also water quality issues and general concern about the environment that goes along with all this. And then couple that with the fact that a lot of people who are very concerned about climate change see this as kicking down that -- kicking the can down the road on moving toward renewables.

If fossil fuels are that readily available, that inexpensive and that plentiful in this country, the move towards solar energy, the move toward alternatives that would get us in a situation where we wouldn't -- we're hastening the climate change problem -- gets moved down the road. And that is a concern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of climate change, that's another area that you highlight. The world saw some really stunning developments when it came to climate change this year.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, I mean, the largest recorded storm ever, that typhoon which struck the Philippines.

Now, it's very difficult to connect the dots and say climate change caused a particular storm, but we do know that hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones are fed by warm ocean water. The oceans are warming. We know that. That is a scientific fact. And so there's a lot of studies out there at MIT, Kerry Emanuel, with a study which indicate a lot of good data that would suggest that there will be more storms and stronger storms in the future.

This is still emerging science, but I think, you know, intuitively, when you think about what fuels a storm like this, climate change might have something to do with it. And then on top of that, we have reached this kind of unfortunate milestone, 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide.

What does that mean? Well, put it this way. Scientists will tell you 350 is a good number. We're over that. And that number is something this planet has not seen in millions of years, not in recorded history. And this occurred in the course of the Industrial Revolution. We are speeding up the climate in ways that we do -- we're part of an experiment. We don't know where we're headed with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And all of this just in the last year.

So, Miles, turn to medical science. And we alluded to that just a moment ago.

MILES O’BRIEN: Exciting news on the cancer front, a lot of research right now which indicates that the scientists are coming to the point where they're able to use our own immune systems to attack cancer cells.

Now, the problem with cancer is, basically, it's our own cells replicating in an uncontrollable way. So your immune system doesn't recognize it as a threat. And so, with some vaccines and with some use of antibodies and with some ways of extracting and adding additional T-cells, as they're called, which are kind of warrior cells in your body, they are coming up with ways to, in clinical trials -- it's very early -- to show some progress and some remissions in various forms of cancer.

It's extremely exciting, because think of the alternatives, radiation and chemotherapy, which kill cells all over your body.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us what those trials have found.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it is very early.

And we have got to be careful, of course, talking about these things, because it does -- it can give false hope to some people who are facing terminal illnesses. But in cases of melanoma, leukemia, pancreatic cancer, in some of these small trials, researchers have been able to essentially augment our own immune system to help it identify cancer as a problem.

The problem is, we -- cancer is our own cells, and so our immune system doesn't identify it as a threat and doesn't go after it with the T-cells and all the things which go after and keep our bodies healthy. And so, if you can tweak those things, either genetically with vaccines or by adding additional amounts of them to go after and identify cancer as a threat, it raises the possibility of very targeted therapies which go after only the cancer cells and don't cause all this collateral damage to our bodies.

The initial indications from these early trials are that this has a lot of promise. It's many years before this is going to be widely used, but cancer researchers are extremely excited about this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet this is happening, Miles, at a time when federal dollars, the money that's required to do this research is getting scarcer.

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MILES O’BRIEN: I was tempted to put that at the top of my list, because the -- every researcher I talk to, every scientist I speak with speaks about what a dark time it is for federal funding for basic scientific research.

A lot of people in Washington would say, well, why don't we have the private sector fund this? The private sector doesn't fund things if it doesn't see a good solid business plan. There is a role for foundation money and federal funding to fund basic research, this kind of thing.

When we're talking about this work on cancer, the big pharma entities did not get involved in this until very recently. All this work happened in large part thanks to federal funding, which was there when there was no business plan, there was no obvious conclusion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this was a case where -- in Washington earlier this year when we had the so-called sequester. These are the automatic across-the-board spending cuts, had a direct effect on the money that the organizations like the National Institutes of Health, other science-oriented organizations and how -- and what their budgets were.

MILES O’BRIEN: They want into the sequester with flatlined or reduced budgets. The sequester really ruined a lot of good science.

And a lot of the fundamental science that happens at NICHOLS: , which ultimately leads to cures for cancer, we hope, was set back tremendously. And this is something that, as Washington struggles with the budget, it's easy to say these things are, you know, extra and not necessary, but in the end we're talking about people's lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there have been some changes just recently with the budget agreement, but not -- but a lot of that money is gone.

MILES O’BRIEN: No, it's gone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it's going to stay gone.

But -- and there's a connection, Miles, with the last area that you want to point out. And that is space exploration.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I would be remiss if we didn't talk a little bit about space.

And of course NASA has been affected dramatically by this. In this past year, one of the two Voyager spacecraft left the solar system. Into interstellar space, it went, launched in 1977. We could go on and on about the scientific data that it brought in during that time. It was a significant milestone. But in the same year that happened, the administration of NASA, Charlie Bolden, said, we're not going to be able to afford any of these so-called flagship missions in the future, again, budgetary type of problems.

And, meanwhile, the Chinese have a rover on the moon. So what is it that the Chinese have learned about us that we have forgotten? I wonder about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O'Brien, our science correspondent, we thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: You're welcome.