For the editors at Scientific American, a new year is a chance to look ahead and predict what might unfold in the world of science and health. In 2022 we covered both inspiring and disturbing news—exquisite images from space telescopes, massively reduced reproductive rights in the U.S., efforts to dismantle environmental regulation, a war that laid bare our energy co-dependencies, a Nobel Prize for our Neandertal ancestry, and much more. Here’s some of what we’re paying attention to as 2023 arrives.
Massive satellite constellations are cluttering the night sky, two crewed space stations are operational, and nations are fielding new military capabilities in orbit. Governments in 2023 may see Earth’s orbital regions as in urgent need of stronger international protections.
If the first orbital flight of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle is successful, it could usher in a new era of exploration, space science and commerce because it will offer a less expensive way of getting cargo and crews off Earth. We also think 2023 will advance the search for life beyond Earth, whether the James Webb Space Telescope tells us about biosignatures on a distant exoplanet or we discover fossils in the rocks of Mars’s Jezero Crater, where NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently gathering samples.
We still use a tremendous amount of fossil fuels, and European leaders, facing high costs and possible shortages because of the Ukraine War, will have to make serious decisions about energy infrastructure. We’ll be watching what they decide to build, particularly for renewable energy and transportation of fossil fuels, as well as what existing structures they keep online. The recently elected U.S. government could determine future climate-related financial support and regulation. Simultaneously, science is revealing how much death and damage climate change is causing. We are hopeful that this burgeoning evidence will convince more people worldwide that we have to act now.
It’s very likely 2023 will be a big year for recovery after storms, floods, droughts and wildfires, magnified by the ongoing global climate emergency. Part of that recovery will require officials to make decisions on whether to rebuild and, if so, how to do it in a way that helps us withstand climate change and avoid entrenching inequities. One question is whether adaptation mechanisms will be distorted by the powerful at the expense of fair and just action.
With Twitter in new hands and other social media sites downplaying their very real part in spreading misinformation, in 2023 we will need to modify how we as consumers of news decide what to believe and how we navigate the “infodemic.” The federal government is starting to pay attention to privacy and antitrust issues, as well as the health consequences of the constant use of social media, all of which could dampen the tech sector. Tech firms that thrived during the pandemic are suffering, with major companies such as Meta, Stripe and Lyft laying people off. A tech slump could transpire.
Public interest in COVID and funds for researching it are decreasing. But people are still dying of the disease or are suffering from long COVID—which medical experts are just starting to investigate. The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to evolve, and more vaccines and treatments are in the works. Outbreaks of other viruses, such as monkeypox, emphasize our need for better pandemic preparedness.
With abortion rights curtailed, we will keep covering the science behind the procedure, documenting how abortion bans or restrictions can harm pregnant people, especially those with limited access to health care. We will also continue to report on transgender health, the science of gender, and the effects of legislation on children and families seeking gender-affirming care.
In the long search for new psychiatric drugs, psychedelics hold promise. The Food and Drug Administration may approve MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder this year. Spravato (esketamine) was approved in 2019 as an antidepressant, and psilocybin is being tested to treat major depression. These chemicals are gaining legitimacy, but they aren’t a panacea: three experts at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine recently warned these treatments suffer from a “hype bubble.”
DNA sequencing has revolutionized the study of ancient organisms, but genetic material deteriorates relatively quickly—the oldest DNA sequenced so far is about 1.2 million years old. Proteins survive longer than DNA molecules, and paleoproteomics has been gaining steam as a technique to help place extinct species in the tree of life. The coming year could be an important one for a research tool that recently helped illuminate the evolutionary history of a 23-million-year-old relative of the rhinoceros.
The sciences of our ancient world—paleontology and archaeology—as well as ecology and anthropology are undergoing a massive reckoning around the role of colonialism in scientific exploration. For one, racist species names are on notice. For another, a new generation of scientists is fighting against extractive practices that take specimens from developing nations to the Western world without consideration of local knowledge or without any benefit to the communities from which the items were taken.