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SMC Heads-Up: Kiwis in top journals, fracking, water quality

Press Release – Science Media Centre

NZ scientists in the top academic journals Here at the SMC we keep a close eye on Kiwi scientists published in big international peer-reviewed journals.
Issue 174 – March 23 – 29

NZ scientists in the top academic journals
Here at the SMC we keep a close eye on Kiwi scientists published in big international peer-reviewed journals.

It was pleasing then to this week see not one but three papers authored by New Zealand researchers featured in Science, and other articles and papers in The Lancet, Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Geology – among others.

The Lancet’s editorial this week focused on research from the University of Otago’s Dr Michael Baker, who along with colleagues analysed five million hospital admissions for infectious diseases over a 20 year period and found they increased by 51.3%, while admissions for non infectious diseases increased by only 7.6%.

The Lancet noted that the research has important implications beyond New Zealand to stimulate research and action “where cultural or socioeconomic inequalities may predispose to disparities in health outcomes”.

The Lancet editorial added:

“Despite a small budget, New Zealand has set an example by measuring health disparities for several outcomes in its population. By doing so, such disparities have rightly informed political debate and policy about health in vulnerable populations.”

In Science Landcare Research’s Dr Matt McGlone has a perspective article on Australian research suggesting humans killed off giant herbivores (see picture) in Australia. The University of Canterbury’s Dr Daniel Stouffer, a food webs expert, also featured in Science with research that could hold the key to prioritising conservation needs in New Zealand and overseas. Also in Science is Canterbury’s Professor Jason Tylianakis. Three quarters of the world’s food crops require pollination by animals, usually insects, but international research including Professor Jason Tylianakis shows that this free service provided by nature is under threat.
Meanwhile, Massey University computational biologist, Dr Murray Cox, has found 30 Indonesian women first settled the island of Madagascar The finding, Published in the Royal Society Proceedings B sheds light on one of the strangest evolutionary events in human history. The people of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, are descended from Indonesians, quarter of a world away. How this happened has never been fully explained. The research has attracted extensive international coverage.

Victoria University’s Professor Tim Naish features in Geology
with research looking at future projected sea level rise.

The Nature Publishing Index 2011 Asia-Pacific published this week, looks at papers published across the Nature stable of journals by insitutions in the region. By country, New Zealand is ranked 8th out of 17 countries. The list is topped by Japan, China and Australia.
On the science radar…

Square galaxies, flying plankton, globe-trotting gravity gnomes, robojelly and fake memories for mice.
Govt to take PCE’s lead on fracking
The media has been having a field day on fracking lately.

Former TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner, in his first piece for 60 Minutes, Meet the Frackers, did a fairly thorough treatment of the issue on TV3 on Sunday, with 60 Minutes devoting half of their programme to it.

Chris Laidlaw on his Sunday programme on Radio New Zealand also did a good job of canvassing the issues. Both programmes had extensive input from scientists and plenty of background on overseas cases where evidence suggest fracking activity can trigger small earthquakes and pollute water supplies if not carried out correctly.

But the issue looks set to become the next “1080” or “genetic modification” debate – the latest in a series of contenious environmental and science-related issues with highly polarised views on either side. With oil and gas companies intent on using hydraulic fracturing to tap valuable energy resources and activitists gearing up to oppose them, there would appear to need to be some independent consideration of the issue that would be evidence-based and cut through the rhetoric.

That scrutiny, if it comes, is unlikely in the short term to be led by the Government. One of Dr Nick Smith’s last actions as environment minister was to decide that the Government would wait for Jan Wright, the Parliamanentary Commissioner for the Environment, to decide whether she would undertake an inquiry into fracking. The PCE is undertaking a “scoping” project to determine whether the issue warrants further investigation.

Meanwhile, the issue continues to gather momentum in the US, where research was released this week which suggests people living close to fracking wells may be at higher risk from developing cancers and suffering from respiratory illnesses and eye irritation due to toxic hydrocarbon emissions from wells

Independent public interest journalism centre, Propublica, will host a panel discussion next week on fracking which will be streamed live from New York on UStream (10.30am, April 10 NZT). Details here.
Water quality science in plain language
Can the debate over what to do about deteriorating water quality in our lakes, streams and rivers be better informed by science?

This was the challenge Parliamentary Commissioner for the
Environment, Jan Wright, took up this week when she launched her latest report: ‘Water quality in New Zealand: Understanding the science”.

The plain-language summary aims to lay out the issues surrounding three major pollutants in our waterways: pathogens, sediment and nutrients. Each of these contribute in specific ways to degraded water quality, through water-borne disease, increased murkiness and algal blooms. The report particularly emphasises the historical legacy that has led to today’s water quality declines, including the dramatic impacts of excessive erosion, which has been largely ignored in the recent focus on ‘dirty dairying’ and agricultural intensification.

Responding to the report, NIWA’s Chief freshwater scientist, Clive Howard-Williams, said:

“I agree with the decision to focus on the big 3 contaminants (pathogens, sediment, nutrients). If you were to ask me which of the big 3 was the single most important, I would say sediment. Get sediment right and dealing with a lot of the other problems would be made easier.

“To quote the report: ‘Every year more than 200 million tonnes of sediment washes down New Zealand rivers into the sea. This soil is lost forever’. Remember this is mostly top soil. This makes it even worse.”
Read more comments collected by the SMC here.

Listen to a recording of Jan Wright speaking at Tuesday’s launch, along with a round up of media coverage the report has received, on the SMC website.
The first steps of Growing up in NZ
The latest report from the The Growing up in New Zealand longitudinal study has revealed a wealth of information about the the first months of life for kiwi kids.

The report Now we are born, to be released today, details the findings from interviews and data collected from 6790 children born in the northern North Island in 2009 and 2010.

The data in the report was drawn from interview surveys of mothers before they gave birth and followup interviews covering the first 9 months of their child’s life, allowing researchers to compare parental antenatal intentions for their children’s postnatal environments with the reality for families.

Even though the information gleaned from the study covers just the very start of a New Zealander’s life, interesting findings are already coming to light. Some of the many noteworthy statistics from the report include:

* Almost one in three babies are living in households where one or more people smoke.
* There is a small but significant group of mothers returning to smoking when their children are born.
* Many mothers who had stopped drinking during pregnancy had started drinking again but not at pre-pregnancy levels. NZ European mothers are the most likely to be back drinking.
* 76 percent of babies are in rooms with a TV on a daily basis.

Lead researcher Prof Susan Morten of Auckland University, highlighted the importance of the study and its applications for policy, saying:

“The first 1000 days of a child’s life are critical, from gestation until the age of two and this report is the half-way point”

“But already the data is suggesting that our smoking and drinking messaging needs a longer view, that many homes are not conducive to good health and that our babies are turning to the TV before they can walk.”

You can read more about the report’s findings and our round up of media coverage here.

Quoted: Radio New Zealand

“It comes back to where can we get the most bang for our buck first and focusing on that.

“To understand how much bang you can get from a particular action, you do need to understand the science”.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, on fixing New Zealand’s waterways.
New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Water quality report: Experts comment on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s release of a report outlining the science of, and solutions for, NZ’s degraded water ways.

Ocean threats: A leading New Zealand oceanographer discusses her role in a team of international scientists warning that so many threats are converging on the world’s oceans, a global, integrated approach is urgently needed.
In the news:

Madagascar mystery: New Kiwi research suggests that the island of Madagascar was settled by just 30 Indonesian women only 1200 years ago.

Water quality in the news: The report (above) laying bare the science behind New Zealand’s degraded waterways has received wide media coverage and spurred calls for action.

Increased media focus on fracking: The gas and oil extraction method has been back in public eye recently as concerned community groups and the industry square off over potential environmental and health issues.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

The ‘public square’ myth – Is religion becoming marginalised in society? the answer is an emphatic ‘no’ according to Ken Perrot’s latest musings on Christianity in society.
Open Parachute

Innovation in Wellington – Elf Eldridge highlights just a few of the inventively innovative initiatives going in the capital’s science sector.
Just So Science

The world in DNA sequencers – Need to sequence a genome quick? Grant Jacobs reveals a web app showing the locations of the sequencers the world over.
Code for Life

The Role of Experiments in Science – Observation vs. Experimentation. Darcy Cowan delves into the way we learn about the world.

Glow Sushi – Bio-luminary Siouxsie Wiles sheds some light on GloFish®, a commercially available, genetically-modified, glow-in-the-dark pet fish species
Infectious Thoughts
Research highlights

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

Rising expectations: Rock and soil cores from NZ (Wanganui), a Pacific atoll and the USA indicate that even if global warming is limited to 2degC — something that looks increasingly unlikely — sea levels will still rise 12m to 22m over the next few thousand years. In the relative short term, melting ice and warming oceans is likely to lift sea level by up to 1m this century, according to the researchers, who include a Wellington academic.

Giant herbivores killed off by man? New research suggests that human hunters were primarily responsible for the disappearance of Australia’s giant plant-eating animals about 40,000 years ago. According to the authors, the loss of these “mega herbivores” caused major ecological changes throughout the continent. A related perspective article by New Zealander Matt McGlone looks in more detail at how human hunting caused the megafaunal extinction.

‘Lynch-pin’ species in food webs:After analysing a number of food webs from around the world, NZ researchers found that the same groups of species (phyla) tend to play critical roles in the survival of wildly different food webs across the globe. The research provides important information for conservationists, giving them clues to target species which are critical to the survival of ecological networks.

Camera sees around corners: A new optical device uses ultrafast pulsed lasers to detect objects hidden from direct line-of-sight, and create a 3D image. The camera is able to detect and and analyse photons fired from a laser, bounced off a wall, bounced off the hidden object, then bounced off the wall again. Watch video.
Nature Communications

Protein triggers baldness: Abnormal amounts of a protein called Prostaglandin D2 inhibit hair growth in the bald scalp of men, according to American researchers. The discovery that may lead directly to new treatments for male pattern baldness.
Science Translational Medicine

Mapping the surface of Mercury – and what lies beneath: Data from the MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury has revealed what the surface of the planet looks like and offered an insight into the geophysics of the planet’s crust.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Historic stats go digital: Statistics NZ has moved into the digital era with digitised versions of New Zealand’s historic yearbooks are now available on Statistics New Zealand’s website.Since 1893, New Zealand’s Official Yearbooks have captured the stories of New Zealand in words and in numbers.
Upcoming sci-tech events

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 27, Rotorua; March 28, Christchurch.
Biotech Fruit 2012 – second International Symposium on Biotechnology of Fruit Species – March 25-29, Nelson.
Let’s learn environmental lessons from China – Speaking tour from Jonathan Watts, Guardian Asia correspondent and author of When a Billion Chinese Jump – March 29, Auckland; March 30, Taupo; April 2, Wellington; April 4, Christchurch.
Does rail have a place in a rebuilt Christchurch? – Public lecture from transport expert Professor Peter Newman (Curtin University) – 29 March, Christchurch.

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


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