Three UK Scientists Make Top 10 Science Stories of 2021

Dawn O'Shea

December 15, 2021

Three UK scientists have been cited in  Nature’s  list of 10 people who helped shape the science stories of 2021.

UK Epidemiologist Meaghan Kall, artificial intelligence (AI) scientist John Jumper, and climatologist Friederike Otto, join a host of other international scientists who, according to Rich Monastersky, chief features editor at Nature, "were at the centre of important events in science that have had profound impacts around the world".

"The stories of the people in the Nature’s 10 list provide a fresh look at the major advances, issues, and controversies that marked science and reverberated around the world," Monastersky says.

Meaghan Kall, lead epidemiologist in the UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA’s) COVID-19 epidemiology cell, has been included on the list for her contribution to disseminating accurate information about the virus and the epidemiological statistics that were reported during the year.

As information began to emerge about an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in a city in China’s Hubei Province, Kall and colleagues were putting the finishing touches to a technical briefing document about a concerning SARS variant spreading in the southeast of England.

As concern and confusion about the virus grew, she drew on the data she collected through her job to provide people with accurate, digestible information through Twitter. She used the social media platform to explain to the public what the government data showed, in layman’s terms. She soon acquired a considerable audience and developed a reputation as a reliable trustworthy source of up-to-the-minute data. She has encouraged people who were worried about COVID-19 vaccines to message her privately.

Speaking to Nature, she said: "My favourite responses are the people who say, 'I didn’t really have a lot of faith in PHE, I didn’t really trust it, until I started following your Twitter feed'."

And she hasn’t been afraid to level criticism at the government in its response to the pandemic. One of her most popular tweets criticised the "huge oversight" of not drafting in or consulting NHS sexual health contact tracers for the covid test and trace programme.

 "One of my main aims is really just to try and make sure people are empowered, and have agency

to understand the data to make their own decisions, from a reliable source," she told the journal.

Also on this list is John Jumper, senior staff research scientist at Google's DeepMind facility in London, the initiative developing artificial technology to address some of the world’s greatest challenges. Earlier this year, Jumper and colleagues publicly released AlphaFold, a ground-breaking AI programme that can predict protein structures with stunning accuracy.

Joining Kall and Jumper on the list is Friederike Otto, former director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford and now a senior lecturer at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. The research carried out by Otto and her colleagues in the World Weather Attribution group has created robust model that analyse meteorological data to categorical establish if extreme weather events are attributable to climate change. Experts say the research has the potential to drive government action and promote climate justice.

Along with the three UK scientists, Nature's top 10 list includes:

  • Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, who, along with his team, alerted the world to the emergence of Omicron.

  • Winnie Byanyima, head of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ programme on HIV, who has been a leading critic of wealthy countries and drug companies that ignored calls to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more equitably.

  • Janet Woodcock from the US Food and Drug Administration, who has been cited for her efforts in guiding the agency “through a tumultuous year that included controversial decisions about COVID-19 vaccine boosters and a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease”.

  • Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a former special UN rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, who works in the Philippines.

  • AI researcher Timnit Gebru, who launched a research institute to study how AI systems can be developed more ethically, which will build on work that led to her acrimonious departure from Google a year ago.

  • Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of China’s successful mission to land a rover on Mars, and

  • Computer scientist Guillaume Cabanac, who uncovered thousands of deceptive scientific publications containing nonsense text generated by software, and helped to alert the world to the problem.

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