10. Experimenting with Children
In February, 21 scientists and advocates from around the globe accused researchers at Tufts University of violating the Nuremberg Code — a set of ethical research principles drafted after World War II — by conducting risky experiments on humans. The trials in question studied whether golden rice — a genetically modified form of the grain fortified with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A — can ameliorate vitamin A deficiency, which causes up to half a million cases of blindness a year. The signatories' complaint: Golden rice had not been approved for human consumption. For that reason, they said, feeding it to human subjects in China — including children as young as 6 — was "unethical and potentially dangerous." Tufts issued a statement saying it "fully supports its researchers and their work with" golden rice, adding that the necessary review boards had approved the study.
9. Oops! U.S. Nuclear Secrets Are Posted Online
So much for secrecy. In June, reports surfaced that the U.S. government mistakenly posted online a highly confidential 266-page report. Its contents? Detailed information about hundreds of the nation's civilian nuclear sites and programs — including maps pinpointing caches of nuclear fuel. The data had been earmarked for disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency later in the year as part of an effort to increase transparency around nuclear development. After media inquiries, the government pulled the document — emblazoned with the words "Highly Confidential Safeguards Sensitive" — from a Government Printing Office website. A spokesman for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration said the error did not jeopardize U.S. national security. Energy Secretary Steven Chu admitted that the snafu was "embarrassing."
8. Who Owns the Mekong?
China doesn't do anything small. And it's the massive scale of the series of electricity-generating dams it began building on one of the world's great rivers, the Mekong, in 1986 that is worrying observers downriver. A May report by the U.N. Environment Program and the Asian Institute of Technology warned that China's plan for at least eight dams could present a "considerable threat" to the river — and by extension to some 60 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos who depend on it for water, food and transportation. A petition presented to the Prime Minister of Thailand in June bore more than 16,000 signatures, including those of subsistence farmers and fishermen fearing for their livelihoods. But critics' objections have been muted, some analysts said, by China's ascendance on the world stage — and undermined by plans for Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to build dams of their own.
7. Obama Allows Faith-Based 'Discrimination'
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama made clear that he would overturn a Bush policy that allowed federally funded faith-based organizations to take a job applicant's religion into account in hiring decisions. But he chose not to in a February Executive Order establishing the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Condemnation came swiftly from the left: the order "fails to address critical constitutional safeguards," wrote the Anti-Defamation League in an open letter on Feb. 18. In September, 58 religious and civil-liberties groups echoed that sentiment in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder denouncing the policy. Nearly a year into Obama's first term, it still stands.
6. The Deadlier Flu Virus: When Pigs Fly
While swine flu dominated the headlines, the threat from the far deadlier avian flu resurfaced. Infections from the H5N1 virus, which emerged as a threat to humans in 2003, had been on the decline for the past two years. This year, however, they reversed course: the World Health Organization clocked 49 human infections by November, compared with 44 in all of 2008. In January, scientists found that the virus — which has killed more than half of the people infected since 2003 — was growing resistant to a major class of antiviral drugs. Though it remains largely confined to birds, experts fear a genetic mutation could transform avian flu into a form easily spread among people. Another chilling, if still remote, possibility: scientists said bird flu could combine with swine flu, creating a third deadly super-virus.
5. Ethnic Unrest in Iran
While Iran's electoral paroxysm captured the world's attention, the simmering of ethnic tension in what many people often perceive to be a monolithic state continued unabated. Only a little more than 50% of Iran's population is Persian; the rest is composed of several other ethnic groups. In recent years, Iran has faced persistent attacks allegedly perpetrated by anti-government elements of the Kurdish, Azeri and Baluchi minorities, among others, who maintain that they face discrimination despite a constitutional guarantee of rights. The Islamic Republic, ruled by a Shi'ite theocracy, has staged mass arrests and put to death dozens of "traitors and criminals." Still, the unrest escalated: in October, a suicide bombing by the minority Sunni group Jundullah killed dozens of people — including at least five commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards — and left dozens of others wounded, the deadliest insurgent strike to that point. Tehran accused the U.S. and Britain of stoking the fire; both countries denied it.
4. America: Barring Foreign Brains?
Getting a temporary U.S. work visa was a lot easier this year — because fewer foreigners were trying. In 2007 it took two days for the government to receive enough applications to fill the quota of 65,000 regular H-1B visa permits for foreign skilled workers; in 2008 it took one. But this year? As of late November — nearly eight months after the government started accepting applications — the number of petitions filed was still more than 6,000 shy of the cap, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Though the number and pace of applications have fluctuated over the years, analysts said that in addition to highlighting the soft economy the weak demand this time was partly a result of a provision of the stimulus that made it tougher for firms that took federal bailout money to hire workers on H-1B visas. A Department of Labor spokesman said the agency does not speculate on the factors affecting demand for foreign-labor programs.
3. The Maoist Insurgency in India
India's Maoist insurgents have a long, brutal history. In 2009 they notched more than 800 fatalities, making them perhaps the nation's "gravest internal security threat," as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in September. The rebels, known as Naxalites, have been waging a guerrilla war against the government since 1967. Their influence has grown in recent years: they now have a presence in 223 of the country's more than 600 districts, up from 51 in 2001. In October, following violence that included the Taliban-style beheading of a police informer, cabinet member Mamata Banerjee demanded that the army be deployed to Naxalite strongholds. The government chose not to send troops. Instead, Singh said in November, curbing the violence will require giving the marginalized Naxalites a stake in the country's social and economic fabric. "We have to win the battle for their hearts," he said.
2. Nigerian Blood for Oil
Violence in Nigeria's oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta has exacted a steep cost in both blood and treasure. Oil theft and sabotage, according to an April report by the Niger Delta Technical Committee, cost the country nearly $24 billion and some 1,000 lives in the first nine months of 2008 alone. The violence — perpetrated by locals who resent the government's lack of development efforts — continued unabated into 2009: in May, human-rights groups reported that thousands of villagers were displaced or caught in the crossfire between the Nigerian army and the militants, while aid groups and journalists were barred from entering the region. Faced with a growing crisis, in the latter half of the year President Umaru Yar'Adua mounted perhaps the most vigorous peace efforts yet in the region — including the establishment of an amnesty program for gunmen that prompted numerous warlords and militants to surrender their grenades, guns and explosives, often as thousands of people looked on. The government has also promised education and job training to former militants. Hopes are high, but the peace remains shaky at best.
1. Continuing Segregation Is Hurting U.S. Competitiveness
Talk about a dream deferred. African-American and Latino schoolchildren are more segregated, according to a January report from UCLA's Civil Rights Project, than they were at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, in 1968. Nearly 39% of blacks and 40% of Latinos attended schools composed of 90% to 100% students of color in the 2006-07 school year, the report found, and blacks and Latinos are far more likely than their white peers to attend high-poverty schools and "dropout factories" where huge numbers of students don't graduate. With the segment of nonwhite American students at 44% and climbing, the potential economic consequences are dire. "In a world economy where success is dependent on knowledge," the report said, "major sections of the U.S. face the threat of declining average educational levels as the proportion of children attending inferior segregated schools continues to rise."