2017: Science in the shadow of Trump


18 Jan 2022

The March for Science in San Francisco, 22 April 2017. Image: Matthew Roth/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From the US president’s anti-science rampage to the glaring exposure of Silicon Valley sexism, 2017 was an arduous year in science and technology.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

Irish Twitter was mostly talking #RepealThe8th and Storm Ophelia in 2017, but Silicon Republic’s own account lit up during the September Apple event. (We know ‘Yay sports’ was a cheer for live sports coming to Apple TV, but can’t quite explain ‘Oh the humanity!’)

Future Human

The giddy excitement was in the name of the iPhone X launch, but Apple fans were less enthused by a reveal later in the year when Apple disclosed that it deliberately slowed down iPhones with older batteries.

One battery that would never let you down was that of the Nokia 3310, and 2017 saw this workhorse phone’s revival. 17 years after its original launch, HMD Global revealed a reimagined 2G 3310. It didn’t have apps or a fancy camera, but it did have Snake and a powerful month-long battery.

Nintendo also capitalised on user nostalgia with a mini version of the old favourite Super Nintendo, but it was the all-new Switch that was the year’s gaming superstar, finally nailing the tricky marriage of portable and console gaming.

On the technology frontiers, many companies were still trying to crack autonomous driving. This had already proven to be a dangerous field, though, and 2017 put further distance between concept and reality when Navya’s self-driving shuttle bus crashed in Las Vegas, its first day on the road.

Another emerging technology had some real breakthroughs in 2017. In quantum computing, IBM was ready to build commercially available systems while scientists achieved the first quantum-encrypted message sent wirelessly in a city and the first complete design of a silicon quantum computer chip.

Quantum communications took a great leap when researchers in China managed to teleport a photon 500km into space. Meanwhile, 20bn km away in interstellar space, Voyager 1 was about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its launch. Earlier in the year, Irish documentary The Farthest premiered at the Dublin Film Festival, telling the story of this incredible feat of human engineering.

Trump v science and technology

In the first month of his US presidency, Donald Trump’s administration directed a number of science-related agencies not speak to reporters or publish press releases on social media. Many rogue Twitter accounts fought back and plans began for a March for Science.

Soon after came an executive order banning citizens of majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. This impacted thousands of international researchers and a fall-out with Silicon Valley ensued. Almost 100 tech companies opposed the ban, including SpaceX and Tesla, even though Elon Musk was on Trump’s advisory board. Uber’s CEO, however, left the advisory board following a user boycott.

By March, Trump was calling for steep funding cuts for science-based agencies – one of which even had the word ‘science-based’ removed from its mission statement. Then came the exit of the US from the Paris climate agreement, prompting more uproar. Apple announced $1bn in funds for green projects in response while Trump was busy exacerbating the situation by disbanding the country’s climate change advisory committee.

Trump set a record for going longer without a science adviser than any first-term president since at least 1976. He did make some contributions to science, however.

In March, he approved $19.5bn in funding for NASA’s Mars mission, leading acting chief Robert M Lightfoot Jr to call him a “visionary for the big things”. By December, however, Trump had scaled back the Mars mission to focus on the moon instead. And so his most lasting legacy in science was more likely the new species of moth named after his hair.

Tech is uber sexist

When Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington commented that having just one woman on a board can lead to others, US businessman and former Ryanair board member David Bonderman responded: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much likely to be more talking.”

His ignorant comment caused outrage, especially seeing as it was made during an all-hands meeting at Uber to discuss sexism at the company. Bonderman resigned from the board afterwards.

Former Uber employee Susan Fowler had published a tell-all blog post on her efforts to get a senior colleague sanctioned for making inappropriate sexual advances. Following a major internal investigation into more than 200 claims of sexual harassment, 20 people were fired, plus a top executive. The scandal also brought about the resignation of both CEO and founder Travis Kalanick and his second-in-command.

But sexism was not just an Uber problem. Astia CEO Sharon Vosmek said there was a “continual tone deafness” in Silicon Valley, and Fowler wasn’t the first to shine a light on it. Ellen Pao’s very public gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers a few years previous had spawned ‘The Pao Effect’, which saw employees at other high-profile Silicon Valley firms follow suit.

In 2017, leaders at Amazon, 500 Startups and Lowercase Capital were among those who were forced to apologise or resign for inappropriate conduct. One Google employee was reportedly dismissed for a toxic memo that attributed the gender imbalance in tech to biological differences between men and women.

In the face of this rampant sexism, one all-woman founding team created a fictional co-founder named Keith Mann in order to be taken seriously.

Malware to make you WannaCry

Another force wreaking havoc on tech in 2017 was WannaCry ransomware, which affected around 200,000 computers in 150 countries and caused millions of dollars in damages.

The UK’s National Health Service was among those badly impacted by the attack, which allegedly originated in North Korea. Luckily, there was minimal damage in Ireland. Taking heed of the damage caused to the NHS, the Irish health service cut off its servers as a protective measure.

WannaCry was thought to have been stolen from the NSA’s stock of cybersecurity weapons. When its rampage was eventually stopped by infosec expert Marcus Hutchins, a new threat emerged in the form of Petya. This malware first affected organisations in Ukraine, before spreading further into Europe.

Like its predecessor, Petya hit older Windows systems but a kill switch was more difficult for infosec experts to find. Petya also targeted specific organisations in contrast to WannaCry’s more scattergun-style attacks.

The surprise twist then came when WannaCry ‘hack hero’ Hutchins was himself accused of writing banking malware Kronos.

Cassini’s grand finale

As of 2017, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft had been in Saturn’s orbit for 13 years. It made an amazing discovery when it detected an ocean that could harbour life below the surface of Enceladus, one of the ringed planet’s moons. Cassini also discovered liquid methane seas and intriguing prebiotic chemistry on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Launched in 1997, Cassini was a joint project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. Now low on fuel, there was only one place left to go. Fearing a potential crash into one of Saturn’s moons (which scientists wanted to preserve for future exploration), the decision was made to direct Cassini into the gas giant’s atmosphere to burn up.

The probe began its five-month descent after a final brush past Titan on 26 April. On this journey, Cassini dove through Saturn’s rings 22 times, capturing images and videos. Finally, on 15 September, just before its 20th anniversary, the intrepid explorer disintegrated in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Irish R&D’s fab four

Ireland’s STEM sector saw the addition of four new Science Foundation Ireland research centres in 2017.

FutureNeuro was established to address the burden caused by chronic and rare neurological illnesses, with an initial focus on epilepsy and motor neurone disease.

Confirm – which would eventually be hosted by the University of Limerick – aimed to make Ireland a leader in smart manufacturing.

The I-Form centre was designed to enhance the processing efficiency of Irish manufacturing and reduce its waste. It also focused research efforts in areas such as 3D printing, data analytics and augmented reality.

Finally, Beacon (later known as BiOrbic) focused on the bioeconomy. It would look at the by-products of the marine and agricultural sectors to make sustainable products such as chemical building blocks, plastics, fuels and energy.

In other news

13 January: 16-year-old Shane Curran wins the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition for his quantum-secure, encrypted data storage solution.

17 January: Twitter cuts Vine off (though it lives on in archive form).

24 January: SoapBox Labs announces €1.2m in seed funding secured as a result of an Inspirefest meet-up.

22 February: NASA announces the discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a dwarf star.

26 February: 98-year-old Katherine Johnson, one of the women of NASA who inspired the movie Hidden Figures, receives a standing ovation at the Oscars.

7 March: Apple Pay begins a slow roll-out in Ireland, two and a half years after it was first revealed.

8 March: A WikiLeaks data trove of thousands of alleged classified documents from the CIA indicates that cyberspies could gain entry to iPhones, Android devices and Samsung TVs.

20 March: Following Stripe’s $9bn valuation, Patrick and John Collison are added to Forbes’ Billionaires List.

30 March: SpaceX makes history with the world’s first flight of a previously used rocket.

24 April: Stack Overflow reports that 9pc of the Dublin workforce are software developers.

9 May: As bitcoin reaches new highs over $1,700, Germany’s central bank warns against buying the cryptocurrency, dismissing its stability.

10 May: NASA releases an image of Ireland from space in which you can see pillars of smoke rising from hundreds of gorse fires sweeping across the country.

16 May: SESAME, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, is inaugurated marking a milestone for an unprecedented scientific collaboration involving Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.

23 May: EIRSAT-1, a satellite owned and built by an Irish team, is approved by the ESA to be launched from the International Space Station.

13 June: Marissa Mayer resigns from Yahoo as the company finalises its merger with Verizon.

15 June: Mobile roaming charges for calls and texts (but not data) are dropped across the EU.

20 July: A paper published by archaeologists in Australia suggests that the first humans arrived there around 10,000 years earlier than was previously thought.

26 September: Siro, the joint venture of ESB and Vodafone, withdraws from the Irish Government’s National Broadband Plan, leaving only two bidders: Eir and the consortium of Enet, SSE, Granahan McCourt and John Laing Group.

10 October: Astronomers rejoice as an increased fund allocation announced in Budget 2018 means Ireland will be joining the European Southern Observatory.

16 October: LIGO and the European Southern Observatory confirmed the detection of both gravitational waves and a light source created following the collision of two neutron stars approximately 100m years ago.

16 October: The first episode of Inspirefest: The Podcast goes live.

19 October: Scientists in Hawaii detect an interstellar object passing through our solar system, naming it ‘Oumuamua.

25 October: Reddit shuts down several Nazi and white supremacist subreddits in a crackdown on violent content.

31 October: In prepared statements for US Congress, Facebook, Google and Twitter reveal the scale of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

9 November: Chinese company ByteDance agrees to buy Muscial.ly in a deal reported to reach up to $1bn, with plans to merge the popular lip-sync video app with its own TikTok platform.

17 November: Silicon Republic’s Ann O’Dea receives an Outstanding Contribution to the Digital Sector award from the Information Technology Association Galway.

8 December: Researchers led by RCSI and the Genealogical Society of Ireland publish the first genetic map of the people of Ireland.

20 December: A consortium led by French billionaire Xavier Niel is confirmed as the new majority owner of Eir.

The March for Science in San Francisco, 22 April 2017. Image: Matthew Roth/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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