It’s been a year of incredible feats in science and technology but also a year of uncertainty too as the Australian government’s budget proposed changes to the funding for universities and cut funding to a number of research bodies.
There were job losses at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a loss of valuable expertise which the staff association fears will continue in 2015. Doubts too over the future of research at some CSIRO facilities including the Parkes radio telescope.
The other funding cuts hit the Australian Research Council, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and Australian Institute of Marine Science, described by Suzanne Cory, then President of the Australian Academy of Science, as a “backwards” move for Australia and lacking any “overall long-term strategy”.
But despite the gloom over funding and cutbacks for science and technology, what were the achievements over the past 12 months?
The future for science
Then tragedy strikes
One of the biggest tragedies of the year was the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March en-route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. From the very beginning it was unclear what could have happened to the aircraft with 239 passengers and crew on board.
The searchers turned to satellite images of potential aircraft debris for help and underwater listening devices in the hope of locating the flight data recorders – the famous black box that was an Australian invention.
The search for any debris is continuing off WA and the ongoing mystery of the disappearance raised questions about the technology used in tracking commercial planes.
The airline suffered another tragedy in July when flight MH17 was downed over the Ukraine on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board. This time the debris was easily located – though in a region of rebel fighting – and it turned to forensic investigators to try to identify as many of the recovered bodies as possible.
The mysterious universe
The ongoing mysteries of the universe continued to throw up some interesting results including the discovery of what is thought to be the oldest known star and early images from the new ASKAP radio telescope array in Western Australia.
There was much excitement too following the announcement of the first evidence of gravitational waves in the afterglow of the Big Bang. But that was short lived though as the findings may have been clouded by dust within our own galaxy.
The probe bounced off the surface of the comet before eventually landing on its side which reduced its solar-powered potential. Still, it did manage to send some interesting data back on organic matter on the comet before going to sleep.
Breakthroughs this year
New discoveries of the year included Element 117, also known as ununseptium, adding to our understanding of superheavy elements.
Out with the old
Microsoft finally ended support for its Windows XP operating system, despite the software’s popularity. But its Windows 8 proved unpopular and needed upgrades of its own leading to speculation that Windows 9 would soon be roiled out soon … or even bypassed in favour of Windows 10 in 2015.
Rival Apple, long claimed to be resistant to virus attack, found itself caught up in the Bash bug. But this was nothing compared to the problems the Heartbleed bug caused, potentially exposing the personal and financial data of millions of people stored online.
The federal government did reveal its plans for the retention of metadata and they were not as strong as first feared, though the latest attempt to clamp down on copyright breaches and illegal downloads has put pressure on Internet Service Providers – while calling on content providers to be more realistic on their prices.
Advances in technology
There was further talk on wearable tech such as Google glass, Fitbit and Apple Watch.
But concerns over who has access to the data, the use of such data in courts and misguided claims that these will spark a health and fitness revolution have dominated the discourse about these fancy new gadgets.
Predictions that wearable technology will tend towards clothing in the future, as opposed to accessories, will be aided by the flexible batteries developed by CSIRO.
We also learned that saying thank you really does make a difference.
Top ten Science + Technology stories by readership in 2014:
- Born this way? An evolutionary view of ‘gay genes’ by Jenny Graves
- There’s no such thing as reptiles any more – and here’s why by Dustin Welbourne
- Why so many domesticated mammals have floppy ears by Jeff Craig and Don Newgreen
- Twelve ways to deal with a climate change denier – the BBQ guide by Rod Lamberts and Will Grant
- Do we really only use 10% of our brain? by Amy Reichelt
- How to teach all students to think critically by Peter Ellerton
- Is Stephen Hawking right? Could AI lead to the end of humankind? by David Dowe
- The journey to the other side of absolute zero by Tapio Simula
- When parallel worlds collide … quantum mechanics is born by Howard Wiseman
- The 10 stuff-ups we all make when interpreting research by Rod Lamberts and Will Grant