What a busy year for ScienceInsider. Hurricanes, fires, and floods. Researchers misbehaving, politicians squabbling, institutions battling over patents that could be worth billions of dollars. The research community produced plenty of news beyond show-stopping science such as new discoveries about the cosmos and how the slimy hagfish ties itself up in knots. And we tried to keep you up to date, publishing more than 1200 stories this year on policy, politics, personalities, and trends.
Looking back, many storylines stand out. But in the interest of brevity (and fitting on your phone screen), ScienceInsider offers its seven from 2017: a selection of seven of our most important, interesting, or widely read stories and topics of the year.
1. Trump takes command
The arrival of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States has sent ripples far into the scientific community. As a candidate, Trump earned the distrust of many researchers for his statements questioning climate science and the safety of childhood vaccinations. And he pleased few science advocates with his initial budget requests to Congress, which have called for deep spending cuts at many federal science agencies (although Congress has so far resisted many of those cuts). The relationship between the Trump White House and the scientific community was further strained by the administration’s failure to appoint a science adviser, its mixed record on filling other science-related positions, its decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and downsize several national monuments, and moves to remake science advisory boards at the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the epic estrangement between Trump and the U.S. research community, some researchers say they are still willing to serve the administration in some capacity, if only in self-defense. “You need to be at the table, otherwise you are on the table,” says Charles Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who labels himself a moderate Republican. “Just ignoring [the administration] would not help the scientific community.”
2. The March for Science
Spurred in part by Trump’s election, this past April more than a million people around the world took to the streets in some 600 communities to voice support for science. ScienceInsider provided round-the-clock coverage of the events, which included massive crowds in major cities and lone marchers taking a stand on isolated arctic islands. There is little question the march was unprecedented. It remains to be seen, however, whether the gatherings have any long-term influence.
3. Sexual harassment
Even before the #MeToo movement took flight, the scientific community was grappling with a string of sexual harassment cases. Readers showed particular interest in one case involving geologist David Marchant of Boston University, who university investigators ruled had harassed a former graduate student when both were working at an isolated field camp in Antarctica in 1999 and 2000. Marchant has appealed the finding. The story prompted the science committee of the House of Representatives to open an investigation.
4. A tiny porpoise faces extinction
A risky effort to capture and move to captivity some of the last few vaquitas on Earth ended in failure. The tiny porpoise, found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California, is down to fewer than 30 individuals. It is threatened by gillnets used to capture a fish valued for its swim bladder, which is sold as a medicine in Asian markets. Mexico has banned gillnetting in the vaquita’s waters, but poaching continues. And last year, biologists concluded that rearing the animals in captivity was necessary to save the species. But they called off the effort after a captured vaquita died in a pen.
5. Science publishing shakeup continues
Challenges to traditional methods of sharing the results of scientific studies—such as publishing in peer-reviewed subscription journals—came into sharper focus this year. Life scientists posted a record number of so-called preprints—papers that have not received peer review—in free, online repositories, heralding a potentially dramatic shift in how that community reports findings. Publishers of subscription journals, meanwhile, face numerous threats to their business model, including the growing popularity of Sci-Hub, the infamous—and, according to a U.S. court, illegal—online repository of pirated research papers. One analyst concluded that Sci-Hub’s cache of pirated papers is so big that subscription journals are ultimately doomed. Some European universities, meanwhile, are battling with for-profit publishers over their subscription costs and policies.
6. Is one of the world’s largest headcounts down for the count?
Every 10 years, the Constitution of the United States requires the government to tally the number of people living in the country. The decennial census is one of the largest headcounts in the world, has immense implications for congressional elections and the distribution of federal funds, and provides social scientists, economists, and other researchers with a valuable trove of data. But the next census, set for 2020, appears to be in trouble, beset by cost overruns and leadership turmoil.
7. Outbreaks remain a threat
This year brought reminders that disease outbreaks still pose a serious threat. The Ebola virus reappeared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yellow fever struck Brazil, and a deadly plague epidemic raged in Madagascar. A cholera outbreak that started in Yemen in 2016 raged on.