The Biggest Science Events Happening In 2021

As we enter 2021, the world faces no shortage of challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change to political instability, but there are also lots of opportunities on the horizon. Although the news can often sound dire, Nature listed several advances in science, medicine, space exploration, research, and technology that actually provide reason for hope in the new year.

The most obvious concern is the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which began with Pfizer's in December. Other companies have their own vaccines on the way, including Johnson & Johnson, which is currently running trials on one that can be administered in a single dose, whereas those on the market so far require two.

Elsewhere in COVID news, the World Health Organization will dispatch a team of investigators made up of virologists, epidemiologists, biologists, and public health experts to Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, in order to trace the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. They will start at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (which sells a lot more than seafood, according to the South China Morning Post), and follow the supply chains of meat and wild animals to chase down the emergence of this deadly disease.

The news about COVID is indeed important, and definitely the most pressing challenge humanity faces going into 2021, but there's other news that's equally exciting right around the corner.

The year 2021 will be big for space exploration

Now for the fun stuff. 2021 is shaping up to be an action-packed year for those of us with our eyes set on the final frontier. Right out of the gate, we've got China's Tianwen-1 mission, which reports is scheduled to reach Mars on February 10. Let's hope it works out better than the time NASA lost a super expensive satellite in the Martian atmosphere after failing to make a simple unit conversion, because China has some big things planned for Tianwen-1. Its first exploration of Mars would also be the world's first orbiter-lander-rover combo on the Red Planet. But Tianwen-1 won't be all alone out there. Launched on July 30, 2020, NASA's Perseverance Rover is expected to land on Mars on February 18. The rover will search for the leftovers of microbial life, take core samples, and explore ways to generate oxygen from the planet's atmosphere in preparation of sending humans there in the future.

But NASA isn't just focused on Mars. In October, it will finally launch its much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.8 billion infrared observatory that is being called the successor to the Hubble Telescope. NASA says Webb will allow scientists to "look much closer to the beginning of time and hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies." Then in November, the administration will launch its Artemis 1 mission, which it is billing as "Humanity's return to the moon."

Open access to scientific research, medical advancements, and (let's hope) climate change progress in 2021

Also slated for 2021 is a revolution in access to scientific data that could fundamentally alter how research is shared and used in the future. According to its website, Plan S has brought together over 20 international organizations that fund scientific research to stipulate that scholarship resulting from projects they have financed must be made immediately available for anyone to read for free. Acting on the premise that open access is a cornerstone of scientific progress, the coalition states that the monetization of access to scientific research is "at odds with the ethos of science" and calls for an end to subscription-based scientific publishing. 

Stem cell researchers could be getting more freedom to look into the possibilities of that technology. The International Society for Stem Cell Research is set to release updated guidelines for what stem cell scientists can do, possibly broadening the so-called "14-day rule," which in most countries limits researchers' capacity to work with in vitro human embryos to just two weeks after fertilization. An extension could increase our knowledge of the origins of early-pregnancy miscarriages.

On the climate front, scientists, activists, and anyone with common sense is hoping that 2021 will be a turning point for action on climate change. The incoming Biden administration has said it will have the United States rejoin the Paris agreement, and countries are hoped to set new pledges to emissions cuts and other actions at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.