With the work of scientists firmly in the public spotlight — perhaps more than any time before — 2021 is set to be a pivotal year for research and development, scientific innovation, and technological progress.
Few will forget 2020 in a hurry. Before the year even got underway, a novel virus later found to be SARS-CoV-2 (AKA COVID-19) emerged in the sprawling Chinese city of Wuhan. By March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared this outbreak to be a pandemic.
As 2020 drew to a close, 80 million people around the world had contracted the virus and 1.77 million had died.
Facing arguably the greatest global disaster since World War II, scientists and health workers have since mobilized and collaborated on a scale never seen before. To help contain the spread of the virus, they continue to provide treatment for COVID patients; seek new ways to repair and strengthen damaged supply chains; and, most urgently, develop the vaccines to prevent the virus from spreading through populations.
Such concerted, collaborative efforts between science organizations, research institutions, and governments have already culminated in the development of several vaccines — the most notable being those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna.
The immunization drive is already well underway. On 8th December 2020, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the Western world to be administered with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine outside a trial, kickstarting a mass vaccination programme that has thus far administered tens of millions of doses globally.
But science in 2020 wasn’t all COVID-related. Behind the headlines, plenty of remarkable discoveries were made.
The oldest Homo erectus skull was found in South Africa. The InSight lander spacecraft revealed that Mars has a quiet, constant “humming” sound. The last meal of a 110-million-year-old armored dinosaur was discovered. Newly unearthed cave discoveries in Mexico — 30,000 years old, no less — have pushed back the history of human activity in the Americas. And, after another mass vaccination programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the second-largest Ebola outbreak was declared over by the WHO back in June.
But while 2020 produced some silver linings, the STEM sector still faces an uphill struggle; not only to halt the spread of a virus that continues to result in hundreds of thousands of new cases a day, but also to rebuild and expand the workforces and supply chains necessary for the future.
With COVID-19, climate change, and economic uncertainty very much at the forefront of everyone’s mind, 2021 will undoubtedly see major innovation across all STEM sectors.
In this current climate — which underscores the urgent need for robust supply chains and quick, safe, efficient R&D — new opportunities will surely beckon for scientists and STEM companies alike.
Let’s take a closer look at the trends that will drive science in 2021.
Action against climate catastrophe
With President-elect Joe Biden taking the reins of power in Washington, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021. Biden has vowed to rejoin on “day one” of his presidency, reneging on his predecessor’s withdrawal, and reiterating his election campaign pledge to set a target of cutting U.S. emissions to net zero by “no later than 2050.”
In November, Glasgow will also play host to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Though the event has been postponed by a year due to COVID-19, we can expect to see a new wave of multilateral commitments by UN member states in tackling the climate crisis.
Alongside political action, the growing clamour among the public for sustainable products and services means we will likely see increases in and priority placed on recycling, reduction of carbon footprint, “green” technology, diversification from hydrocarbons, and a reduction of in-excess packaging. In the private sector, we can also expect to see a major increase in research spend.
As companies turn increasingly towards biodegradable plastics, biopolymers, recycled plastics, bio-based chemicals, plant-based chemicals, and reduced solvent, the green economy is poised to be a huge area of innovation — not just in 2021 but throughout the rest of the decade and beyond. Indeed, in the next five years, the bio-based chemicals sector is expected to achieve double-digit compound annual growth.
Vaccine development and rollout
As already mentioned, the quest to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine was arguably the biggest trend to punctuate science in 2020. In 2021, this will be no different, though the angle has shifted from one of development to one of effective rollout.
In the opening months of 2021, the effectiveness of the vaccines will come into focus. As of January 2021, most of the world’s developed nations were still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the limited rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccine, the US and UK both opened the new year with their highest-ever daily total of new coronavirus cases.
This trend is undoubtedly the most urgent. To vaccinate the world, more drugs than the initial three vaccines will be needed — particularly in the Global South, which is beset with logistical and infrastructural issues. Furthermore, if we don’t vaccinate in a quick and efficient manner, mutated variants of the virus like those that recently emerged in South Africa and England may evolve.
As such, researchers are currently working around the clock to expand upon the already-authorized vaccines. These vaccines are currently at various stages of the drug discovery process, from testing and development through to clinical trials and post-market safety monitoring. Johnson & Johnson, for example, is currently testing a single-shot version of the vaccine (in contrast, the existing vaccines require two doses).
Further COVID recovery
Just as governments and public institutions have fully mobilised towards containing the spread of the virus, life science institutions will continue to be under pressure to deliver favourable outcomes.
This will involve maintaining, replacing, and strengthening the supply chain, as well as rebuilding a workforce that has been impacted by various lockdown measures. With the hospitality sector left reeling and home food delivery services thriving in its stead, the FMCG industry, for example, will likely direct its efforts towards sustaining the grocery boom.
Mitigating Brexit disruption
The UK officially left the EU at 11pm on December 31st, 2020 when the 11-month transition period finally came to an end. As we have already seen, Britain’s departure from the trading bloc is dogged by uncertainty; causing waves of disruption to research funding, supply chains, import, export, and chemical registration.
Though the immediate impact will be felt in the UK and the EU, the repercussions will reverberate around the globe. As a major trading bloc and a global hub for pharmaceuticals (accounting for 22% of global pharma sales), the region’s influence on the global life sciences market is considerable. This influence is most apparent with the May 2021 application of the EU Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which will apply to any manufacturer that deals with the EU market.
Mars will be the nexus for space exploration in 2021. On February 10, China’s Tianwen-1 will reach Mars and send a rover to seek life and water on the surface of the Red Planet. Not long after, on February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover will also touch down in a bid to look for signs of extinct life in a dried-out crater lake. The latter mission will also deploy a small helicopter — the first powered flight on the surface of another planet.
Around the same time, another mission from the United Arab Emirates — El Amal (“The Hope”), the Arab world’s first interplanetary spacecraft — will enter Mars’ orbit.
Our knowledge of deep space will also broaden in scope in 2021. After over a decade of delay, this year will likely see the long-awaited launch of the James Watt Space Telescope (JWST). With its giant mirror, this feat of science and engineering will tell us more about the history of the universe and become a worthy successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.*
*At time of press, the telescope is scheduled to launch on October 31, 2021.
Nature and conservation
In 2021, Kunming, China will host the fifteenth Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The stated intention of this meeting is to “adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework as a stepping stone towards the 2050 Vision of 'Living in harmony with nature'." The goals of this multilateral treaty are ambitious: for 30% of the world’s land and sea habitats to have official protected status by 2030.
While many experts believe a figure of 30% and upwards will help slow extinction rates and save the planet from ecological collapse, whether this target is enough remains up for debate.
In other conservation-related news, the UN is set to outline the first treaty to preserve and protect marine biodiversity in the high seas (international waters that do not fall under any country’s jurisdiction). The treaty will outline a way to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) and close the “biodiversity governance gap” through sustainable use of these open waters, which account for two-thirds of the Earth’s ocean.
More developments to expect in 2021
Investigations into the origin of coronavirus
Throughout 2021, a WHO taskforce of virologists will travel to China in an attempt to uncover the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, however, China had blocked access to the first WHO delegation to visit the country (citing lack of visa clearances) — underscoring the politically sensitive nature of the mission. The source of the virus remains hotly contested; possible culprits include wet markets, auto parts packaging, and, most controversially, a lab leak.
Organized by some of the world’s largest research funders, the European-led Plan S is an open-access (OA) initiative. The requirements of the plan will come into force throughout 2021 across much of scientific publishing. By making scientific literature freely available to all, the initiative could spell the end of journal subscriptions. Indeed, the Nature journal has already announced the landmark decision to allow some researchers in Germany to publish openly.
After undergoing two months of Arctic sea trials to test its ice-breaking capabilities, the much-publicized RRS Sir David Attenborough research ship (formerly known as Boaty McBoatface), will make its maiden voyage to the Antarctic in November 2021. This long-anticipated expedition is set to transform our understanding of the polar regions.
The advent of 5G in manufacturing
100 times faster than 4G, the fifth-generation mobile network is set to revolutionize a host of industries, with the manufacturing sector set to benefit from this reliable wireless technology. By drastically speeding up latency times and boosting the industry’s digital capabilities, 5G can remove processing delays and ensure factory systems respond in real-time. According to Bain & Company, “5G could even usher in an era of massive machine-type communication (communication between machines).”
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