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Ministry merger, dolphin dilemma, Pink Terraces find

Column – Science Media Centre

Super ministry Maui’s dolphins Pink & White Terraces Mind reading New from the SMC Sciblogs highlights Research highlights Sci-tech eventsSMC Heads-Up: Ministry merger, dolphin dilemma, Pink Terraces find

Issue 173 – March 16 – 22

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Super ministry mirrors overseas moves
Wellington is abuzz with news of the ‘super ministry’, which was unveiled yesterday and will have major implications for a large number of public servants.

Some leaders in the science system have commented about the implications of the Ministry of Science and Innovation being bundled into the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Professor Shaun Hendy, who is President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said the merger could have major benefits on the economic development front, but may marginalise important environmental and health research that didn’t have an immediate economic outcome.

In a press release he commented:

“We know that more scientific research is needed to grow industry, manufacturing and exports. But large components of the science system are concerned with the broader view, such as environmental and health science research, areas that do not often deliver an immediate payoff but which can be immensely valuable over longer time frames. Further change such as this is likely to add more uncertainty to funding structures and to science career paths, especially for younger scientists”.

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, also weighed in, saying:

“This reorganisation highlights the role that science and science-based innovation can play in a country’s development, be it through direct impact on greater productivity from enhanced services, advanced manufacturing and the primary industries, or indirectly through greater environmental sustainability and social development.

“It will be important that the new Ministry continues to give focus to the broader ways in which science advances New Zealand and I have no doubt that will indeed be the case.”

Overseas precedents

He points out also that the grouping of science, skills and economic development under one roof is not uncommon overseas.

Indeed, the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was formed in 2009 as the result of a merger, one of several the coalition government has undertaken there in a drive to reduce national debt. Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Research, Science and Tertiary Education came into being officially just a few months ago. If anything stands out as unique about the merger here is that it did not include tertiary education.

It is too early to tell if these major science-business mergers in the public sector have worked particularly well, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that mergers in general are tricky to get right. The merger study Disappointing Marriage: A Study of the Gains from Merger is often cited, though looks at the the private sector. In anticipation of a large amount of public sector merger activity, Grant Thorton and the Guardian newspaper in 2010 commissioned a survey of 600 directors and senior managers to gauge attitudes in the public sector towards mergers. In the report’s intro the authors note:

“While few precedents exist and little practical guidance on successful implementation is available, there is copious evidence that reorganisation and restructuring often result in failure. This is not a problem unique to the public sector. Indeed, a review of the literature shows that between 50-80% of private sector mergers disappoint, with many destroying shareholder value.
On the science radar…

Super Mario maths, catholic crocodiles, sex-deprived alcoholic flies, urbane frogs and trans-fat fury.
Further protection for rarest dolphins
A new Department of Conservation report estimates there are only 55 Maui’s dolphins left in the world, sparking action to save the species.

The report, which was released on Tuesday, estimates that there are somewhere between 48 to 69 Maui’s dolphins left, with a middle estimate of 55.

Based on previous dolphin surveys, the researchers estimate that the population is declining at a rate of 3% per year.

In the light of the report, the government has announced plans to hasten a review of threats to dolphins and, as an interim measure, extend current fishing bans.

“Maui’s are critically endangered so any decline is very concerning. It is important that we act now, which is why the Government has proposed the interim measures and has brought forward the review of the plan.” said Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson.

The government will be consulting on the proposes measures with a decision expected late May.

Maui’s dolphin expert Assoc. Prof Liz Slooten, University of Otago, told the SMC that one of the most important areas to protect was the gap between the North and South Islands.

“Any dolphins that venture into this area have a very high probability of being caught in a gillnet or trawl net,” Dr Slooten said.”This is a serious problem in terms of causing fragmentation of the population”
“The current government proposal also begs the question as to why they are not putting in place better protection in the harbours. A dead Maui’s dolphin was found in the Manukau Harbour late last year. And our research has also documented their use of the Kaipara Harbour, well beyond the current protected area.”

Your read Dr Slooten’s full comments and a round up of media coverage on the SMC website.

Survey expands on Terraces find
“Drain the lake! Drain the lake!” That was the cry from enthusiastic Stuff readers on hearing confirmation from scientists today that a large section of the Pink Terraces survived the Mt Tarawera eruption and sit intact on the floor of Lake Rotomahana.

GNS Science’s Cornel de Ronde and his team returned to Lake Rotomahana recently to conduct sonar and seismic surveys of the lake floor. The surveys – much higher resolution than those that revealed the presence of part of the terraces last year, show a 40 metre wide, three-storey high mass of solid material.

Scientists believe they are the Pink Terraces, though they are not visible as they are covered in two metres of sediment. The faith of the white terraces, positioned in another part of the lake, is still unknown.

GNS Science today released a video featuring Dr de Ronde explaining the latest finds. TVNZ’s Sunday programme will also feature the research – 7.30pm, TV1, Sunday.
MRIs, Telsa and food for the brain
The University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research foreshadowed tomorrow’s Brain Day with a lively and informative event looking at the science of imaging of the brain.

A Q&A session MCed by Media7’s Russell Brown on Wednesday featured imaging scientists Associate Professor Brett Cowan and Dr Donna Rose Addis, with the resulting video available online. It is well worth a look.
Quoted: New Zealand Association of Scientists

“Such a merger shows a desire for science in New Zealand to focus on the short-term bottom line”

“But, it makes no sense in terms of environmental science for environmental sustainability or in terms of health science to improve the well-being of New Zealanders”

NZAS President Prof Shaun Hendy on the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Quake questions: Following from last month’s SMC Q&A with earthquake engineers, we have several more earthquake related questions answered by a panel of expert engineers.

‘DIME’ not so legal: The active ingredient in a supposedly legal party drug sold in New Zealand has been revealed to be a obscure – and illegal – hallucinogen. Read commentary from NZ experts and the Danish researchers who first synthesised the chemical.

More Maui protection: In the wake of a DOC report estimating that there are only 55 Maui’s dolphins left, scientists call for better measures to ensure the survival of the species.

Labour pain relief: An authoritative systematic review has analysed the evidence for a a range of labour pain relief approaches. Experts respond to the findings.

Reflections on Science:

Mega ministry merger: Read commentaryfrom science leaders responding to the announcement of the new Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

The (supposed) myth of the 8-hour sleep – Somnologist Karyn O’Keeffe takes a look a the idea of biphasic sleep – splitting your sleep into two chunks.
Sleep on it

A solution to the world’s energy problems? – Can device truly put out more energy than it takes in? Marcus Wilson investigates.
Physics Stop

Pure, white and deadly? – Nutritionist Amanda Johnson adds a spoonful of reason to the current debate over the health consequences of sugar.
Food Stuff

Give us something simple, Steven – Ahead of John Key’s Mega Ministry announcement, Peter Kerr has some advice for the assumed new minister, Steven Joyce.

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Genetic clues may show cancer risk: A New Zealand researcher has helped a global team of scientists identify more than 500 genes that may trigger or contribute to the most common form of pancreatic cancer. The new research has identified 20 genes linked to the poor survival rate (1-in-20) in patients with pancreatic cancer, and may be used to pinpoint those people most at risk of developing the fourth-deadliest cancer.
Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences

Deep water: Nearly four million Americans are at risk of severe flooding even if sea levels rise only 1m in the coming century. Researchers also point to a substantially higher frequency of storm-driven high water levels by the middle of the century; water levels that have previously been encountered only once-a-century.
Environmental Research Letters

Salt resistant wheat: Tolerance to soil salinity has been bred into a variety of wheat, which will be particularly useful in developing countries where wheat is commonly grown in arid or semi-arid areas with high-saline soil. This breeding line of wheat is not a transgenic, as it was created by conventional crossing, and highlights the potential of using biotechnology to harness genetic diversity found in undomesticated plants to improve modern crops without necessarily creating transgenic organisms.
Nature Biotechnology

Heroin beats methadone for rehab: Medically prescribed heroin is more cost-effective than methadone for treating long-term street heroin users, according to a new Canadian study. Researchers attributed most of the economic benefits to the fact that recipients of medically prescribed heroin stayed in treatment longer and spent less time in relapse than those receiving methadone. Both results are associated with reduced criminal activity and lower health care costs. Canadian Medical Association Journal

Breaking the cycle: Children with disruptive behavioural problems and their parents can benefit from peer-led parenting classes, say UK researchers who created an “Empowering Parents, Empowering Communities” (EPEC) programme. Families proved more likely to seek out and continue treatment if it was delivered by fellow parents in local community settings, rather than professionals working in clinics.

Going to seed?: Fatty diets may be associated with reduced semen quality according to researchers who linked diets high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (the type of fat often found in fish and plant oils) with better-formed sperm in the men. Men could reduce the amount of saturated fat they ate and increase their omega-3 intake to improve not only their general health, but their reproductive health.
Human Reproduction

Sounds like a winner: US research suggests that voters favour political candidates with lower-pitched voices. The new study found that, when asked to pick a hypothetical political candidate on the basis of their voice, voters consistently choose the option with the deeper voice – whether male or female. The authors also suggest that voice pitch may be factor in the disproportionately low levels of elected female leaders.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Tasty looking: Just looking at images of food can change our taste experience. A new study found that participants reported tastes to be more pleasant when preceded by images of high-calorie foods, such as pizza or pastry, as compared to low-calorie foods like watermelon or green beans. The researchers also conducted neuroimaging studies that identified previously unknown brain mechanisms of visual-gustatory sensory interactions involved with food enjoyment.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

‘Super ministry’ : The government has announced the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which will help the Government’s business growth agenda by implementing integrated policies to build a more competitive and internationally-focused economy.

Positive parenting: Trials are underway for a programme training child health and development professionals to support parents who want to improve their parenting skills. MoH is spending nearly $4 million over three years to trial this programme, which is described as one of the world’s most effective parenting programmes.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Pacific Health Fono 2012 – March 18, Auckland.
Ethylene 2012 – The IX International Conference on the Plant Hormone Ethylene – March 19 -23, Rotorua.
Forestwood 2012 – Forestry and timber conference – March 21, Wellington.
Ever green but seeing red? Deciphering the palette of New Zealand’s flora – 2012 Leonard Cockayne Memorial Lecture by Professor Kevin Gould, Victoria University – March 20, Palmerston North; 21, Wellington; 22, Hawke’s Bay; 27, Rotorua; 28, Christchurch.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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