2005: Looking Back at the Year in Science

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English.  I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Pat Bodnar.  This week on our show: a year in science in fifteen minutes.  We will tell you about some of the major science stories of two thousand five:

We tell about false stem cell research …

Intelligent design and evolution …

The return of America's space shuttle …

The latest on bird flu and a new treatment for malaria.

One of the biggest science stories last year was the research on stem cells announced by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk.  But now it appears that the research was false.

In June, Mr. Hwang reported that he and his team at Seoul National University had created eleven new stem cell lines. Stem cells have the ability to grow into other cells.  Science magazine published the report. The new lines were made from the eggs of eighteen women and skin cells from eleven other people.  Most importantly, Mr. Hwang reported that all those who gave skin cells had some kind of disease or spinal cord injury.

This would have meant that the South Korean scientists had produced the first stem cells that were genetic copies of people with injury or disease. At the time, Mr. Hwang said the development was important in efforts to find cures for disease and injury.

But, a few months ago, serious questions were raised about Mr. Hwang's research. First it was discovered that he had not been truthful about where he got the human eggs for the research.  In reality, some came from women who worked in his laboratory.  This caused concern about a possible violation of ethics in his work.  In fact, an American scientist who served as an advisor on the report withdrew his name from it.

A short time later, Mr. Hwang admitted that some of the photographs he provided for the report were false.  This meant the work itself was suspect.

Then, on December twenty-third, a committee of experts at Seoul National University announced the results of an investigation.  It said that Mr. Hwang had provided false information about at least nine of the eleven stem cell colonies he reported about in Science magazine.  Mr. Hwang and his co-authors withdrew the report. Mr. Hwang also resigned from his position at Seoul National University and apologized for the incident.

Another major development reported by the scientist is also under investigation now.  Mr. Hwang claimed to have produced an exact genetic copy of a dog last year. The university committee said it strongly questions the truthfulness of that report.

Another major science story last year came from the United States.  On December twentieth, a federal judge ruled that teaching "intelligent design" in public schools is a violation of the United States Constitution.  Judge John Jones said that intelligent design is not science.  He said it is a version of Christianity.  So to teach it in public schools violates the law that requires the separation of church and state.

Intelligent design opposes the theory of evolution.  Scientists around the world generally accept the theory of evolution.  It is written into science education programs across the country.

Evolutionary theory says that complex life forms have developed through cellular changes over millions of years.  It says most animals reproduce in larger numbers than their environment can support.  Only those animals best able to live in the environment survive.  They then produce similarly strong young.  Species must change as the environment changes, or they die out.  This is the idea commonly known as "natural selection."

Supporters of intelligent design criticize the science of evolution.  They say that biological life is too complex to be explained by natural selection.  They argue that the natural world must be the work of an intelligent designer.

Many scientists and critics say"intelligent designer" is just another way to say God.  They say intelligent design is the same as creationism — the belief that a higher power created the universe.  Most intelligent design supporters are Christians who believe God created the universe.

The recent court case dealt with the public school system of Dover, Pennsylvania.  Last year, the school became one of the first in the country to include intelligent design in high school biology classes.  Parents who opposed this took legal action against the school officials.  Opponents of intelligent design praised the court ruling.  They hope it will influence school systems in other areas of the country that want to teach intelligent design.

Supporters of intelligent design say the court ruling will not stop their efforts.  They say they will continue to fight for a critical discussion of evolutionary theory and intelligent design in American classrooms.

There was also news last year about the American space program.  The American space shuttle returned to the skies in July.  Discovery and its seven-member crew made the first shuttle flight in two and one-half years.  NASA had suspended shuttle flights following the deadly explosion of the shuttle Columbia in two thousand three.

That explosion was the result of damage done to Columbia during its launch. A piece of lightweight protective material fell off the shuttle's external fuel container.  The object hit the shuttle at a high rate of speed and made a hole in one of the wings.  This permitted extremely hot gases to enter the shuttle and destroy the spacecraft as it returned to Earth.

A similar problem happened during Discovery's launch July twenty-sixth although the results were not tragic. A large piece of foam protective material again broke off the external fuel tank. The object did not hit the space shuttle. But NASA officials decided to suspend future shuttle flights until experts fix the problem.

Last month, NASA announced a solution.  It said it would remove two foam structures from the outside of the fuel tank to prevent them from breaking off and hitting the shuttle.  NASA tests during the past two months have suggested that the shuttle is safe without those pieces of foam.

NASA experts had made major improvements to the shuttle for its July launch. They added many cameras to the launch area and to the shuttle itself.  This permitted them to closely record each minute of the launch. And they designed a new warning system to inform shuttle crewmembers and ground control of any problems.

Now, NASA officials say they are considering launching another shuttle in May.

Avian influenza was also a major science story last year.  The h-five-n-one virus appeared in birds in Europe for the first time.  Yet the only known human cases of the disease have been in East Asia.

There have been about one hundred forty confirmed cases of bird flu since two thousand three.  About half the people have died.  Many of the victims had touched or been around infected farm birds. But health experts around the world began warning that the virus could change into a form that is passed from person to person.

Several countries are working on vaccines to protect people against avian influenza.  The effectiveness cannot be known, however, until the virus enters the general population.  If that happens, the drug Tamiflu is the best-known treatment.  Yet late last month, researchers said resistance to the drug may be more common than experts had thought.

There was good news about the disease malaria.  A non-profit international group called the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative announced a new treatment for the deadly disease.  The new treatment will combine the most effective drugs currently used.

The group says the treatment will be easier and cost about half the price of current treatments. Experts say more people will use it as a result. The new treatment will be ready by late this year.

This program was written by Caty Weaver. Cynthia Kirk was the producer.  I'm Pat Bodnar. And I'm Bob Doughty.  Internet users can read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com.  Listen next week for more news about science, in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

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