Science in 2015

The end-of-year science round-ups are appearing thick and fast. Too many to post links here, but many are surprisingly un-alarmist. If you only need one such article it’s Peter Diamandis picking his Top 10 Breakthroughs for 2015. I might also have added ‘NASA getting its public relations and outreach right, at last’, as a rider to his article.

Also fascinating in science is our growing ability to recover enough DNA to reconstruct a much more accurate picture of how ancient human populations evolved, diversified and spread.

Another kind of breakthrough for science in 2015, but in a much less obvious way, was the very public focus and debate on science’s many failings. Doubtless someone will soon write a book on science’s strange middle-aged breakdown and carpet-chewing bout of self-doubt, but a summary of 2015 would consist of…

* the various revelations of stunning levels of experiment reproducibility problems, matters which have since been widely debated in fields ranging from social psychology to biomedical research.

* a rising awareness of the dangers inherent in prematurely building a false and dogmatic consensus on a topic, from pseudo-science such as ‘preferred learning styles’ to the collapse of the cholesterol consensus.

* we saw the public exposure of various underhand methods for fudging and massaging data.

* evidence for the rise of false/purchased accreditation (fake PhDs have become endemic in Russia, for instance).

* the growth of predatory academic journals, and the penetration of their articles into academic search-engines.

* a general fretting over the journal peer review system and its inadequacies.

* hard numbers that demonstrate lack of training quality outside of subject teaching, from patchy PhD student training to the dismal state of information search training for undergraduates.

* the robust attack on jargon (by Pinker, mostly, but he’s enough on his own) and bad writing in science. Plus a nascent move toward having ‘plain English’ summaries or sidebars alongside journal paper abstracts.

One hopes that the target of most of the well-deserved attacks — mostly fields such as social psychology, sociology, educational studies, economics — will respond well to such revelations and chiding. I doubt they’ll be able to defensively return to ‘business as usual’, and some of the less ideology-infected fields may seriously reform and become more healthy and open places to work and debate. One factor weighing against that possibility of openness is the increasing influence of vile twitter-mobs on open investigation and debate, aided by supine university authorities seemingly unable to stand up to the lying bullies.

Anyway, so far as I can tell 2016 seems set to be the year of the invisibly small: useful new nanotech surfaces from biomedical to phones; studies of our gut microbiome; the role of microbes in climate and pollution clean-up; tiny particulate pollution and dangerous nano-fibres; microbial computing; industrial fungi and yeasts, and more. The various fields are moving forward faster than a hyperloop and we can expect big breakthroughs, synergies and discoveries.