Column – Science Media Centre
In This Issue NZAS; Interpreting science; Canadian muzzling; New from the SMC; Sciblogs highlights; Research highlights; Policy News; Sci-tech events SMC Heads-Up: NZAS conference, Bird flu and Peter Gluckman on interpreting science
Issue 225 5 – 11 April 2013
What is the value of science?
In a time of rapid change, how can scientists adapt to and even benefit from changing priorities? What risks getting lost when policymakers shift their focus to commercial applications for science? How do we measure non-economic benefits?
Scientists and decision-makers met this week to grapple with tough questions about the value of science in New Zealand at the annual NZAS conference.
The forum provides an opportunity for leaders and high-profile scientists at different stages of their career to engage on significant issues, and provide a gauge of opinion from the wider scientific community.
Audio from many of the speakers is available on the Science Media Centre website.
The science sector has been through several major overhauls in recent years, and now the last major stone unturned is the science funding system, and it needs to be looked at, according to Chief Science Adviser Professor Sir Peter Gluckman.
But to discuss funding is to complain, and we shouldn’t labour the point, quipped Prof Richard Easther in his brief talk on Why we do science, asking “When have scientists anywhere complained of having more money than they know what to do with?”
Continuing on the topic of funding, Prof Christine Winterbourn spoke of having to hide fundamental science behind descriptions of potential applications, and questioned the current focus on commercial endpoints for research.
Another highlight included Dr David Winter discussing the wider dissemination of science. Scientists should speak up when confronted with nonsense in the media, he said , drawing on his own experiences of the media circus surrounding Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions.
A sizeable number of social media -savvy scientists at the conference took to twitter to spread the key messages out to the wider public during the conference. The SMC’s highlights from live tweets from the event are now available on Storify
Bird flu in China closely monitored
A new bird ‘flu variant in China has claimed five lives, but an apparent lack of human-to-human transmission means the risk of a pandemic is “unlikely”.
The virus, which causes fever and respiratory problems, including severe pneumonia, was first detected in humans in early March and the first three cases confirmed by the Chinese authorities on the 31st of March.
To date, the total number of confirmed cases of human infection with influenza A(H7N9) virus recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO) in China is 11, including five deaths. Non-confirmed cases based on Chinese media reports put the number of infections as high as 14.
As the Chinese government ramps up its surveillance efforts further cases maybe identified retrospectively through testing samples from previously reported cases with severe respiratory infection.
Although information is limited, experts expect that the infections originated from poultry. The animal health sector has intensified investigations into the possible sources and reservoirs of the virus.
Fortunately, the WHO has so far found no evidence of ongoing human-to-human transmission.
Ex-pat Kiwi Prof Richard Webby, director of a WHO flu centre in Tennessee, USA, downplayed pandemic potential of the virus when speaking to AP.
“At this stage it’s still unlikely to become a pandemic,” he said. “We should be concerned (but) there’s no alarm bells ringing yet.”
The Australian Science Media Centre collected rapid reaction commentary from experts on the unfolding situation in China.
Dr Alan Hampson, influenza consultant and Chair of the Australian Influenza Specialist Group, commented:
“At the moment it’s very hard to have any real idea of what is happening but the reports are certainly concerning. There is a virus out there which, like the H5N1 strain, appears to be causing serious illness, but how widespread that illness is at this very early stage, we don’t know. We don’t know whether we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg or whether we’re actually seeing most of the existing cases presenting as severe infection. If it’s the latter then it’s a concern.
You can read more expert commentary collected by the UK and Australian SMCs here.
On the science radar…
Get to grips with science – Gluckman
The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor has released a discussion paper aimed at helping the public and policy makers better understand scientific information and its uses.
Prof Sir Peter Gluckman yesterday launched the new discussion paper, Interpreting science – implications for public understanding, advocacy and policy formation. Targeted at policy makers and the public, the paper is a crash course on how science fits into policy making and how to judge whether a piece of science is being appropriately interpreted or whether it is being misused or overstated.
Included in the paper are clear explanations of ‘how science works’, scientific consensus and debate, how to deal with uncertainty and the classic confusion of correlation vs. causation.
In his preface to the paper, Sir Peter explains: “too often a piece of science is misunderstood, misused or overstated – sometimes something is presented as established science when it is not, other times it does not suit advocates to accept the science as established when it is.”
Importantly the paper also covers what science can’t do. All too frequently, the paper notes, science is used as a stand-in for arguments that are not actually based on science.
“Issues are confounded even more when discussion about complex science becomes a proxy for debate that is really not about the science but is a debate about values – we see that in issues such as climate change and the regulation of ‘natural’ health products”.
According to the paper, one of the best antidotes to the misuse of science is increasing public scientific literacy – and scientists must take the initiative on this.
“The scientific community has an obligation to engage more pro-actively with the community, particularly in ensuring an understanding of new technologies early in their emergence.”
You can read the full discussion paper here and a press release from Prof Sir Peter Gluckman here.
Canada probes muzzling claims
Canada’s federal information commissioner is to launch an investigation into claims the Harper government has deliberately moved to stop scientists from speaking out about publicly-funded research.
The investigation spans seven government agencies including the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources and is as a result of complaints lodged by the
Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch.
“The complaint is alleging that government policies and policy instruments, including departmental policies, protocols, guidelines and directives, that are related to communications and media relations and that restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public, are impeding the right of access to information under the Act,” the information commissioner Suzanne Legault said in a statement.
Among the alleged instances of muzzling of scientists identified by the complainants in their 128 page report to the commissioner is the case of federal fisheries scientist Kristi Miller, who was
told not to talk to media about her landmark study, published in the journal Science, about sharp declines in the famed sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.
In February, the journal Nature published an editorial the criticising the “cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists”.
“If science is not used and communicated in a way that is appropriate and with high integrity and fidelity we risk sailing into dangerous waters.”
Prof Sir Peter Gluckman on
New from the SMC
Bird flu in China: A UK expert comments on the latest updates regarding the H9N7 influenza strain recently discovered in China.
In the news:
Penguin climate benefits: New research shows climate change isn’t all bad for Adelie penguins in the Ross Sea.
Other Earths: NZ researchers are proposing a new method for identifying and recording Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars.
Crash Stats: New research shows the most at-risk communities for traffic injuries in Auckland.
Reflections on Science:
NZAS conference: Listen to audio from many of the speakers at the New Zealand Association of Scientists annual meeting.
Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:
Adding a hole lot of value to a piece of pine - Who would have thought that a hole in pole could be innovative? Peter Kerr investigates.
The amazing vacuum microwave – Marcus Wilson examines the physics of hot food and stubbord tupperware.
I was wrong about Lord Monckton - Ken Perrott admits that Lord Monckton’s speaking tour of New Zealand isn’t the huge yawn he expected.
John Nixon – It is with great sadness that the Sciblogs team learned that contributor John Nixon, an optical engineer and author of the Light My Fibre blog passed away on March 19, aged 71. Editor Peter Griffin and the Sciblogs community extend their condolences to his family and friends.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Seaweed snafu: A New Zealand researcher has cleared up a 160 year-old mistake which saw one of the country’s common edible seaweeds misclassified. The seaweed, freshly dubbed Pyropia plicata, is an intertidal red alga and has been mistaken for another species since 1840. Now, the separate species has been formally named. Species of the Pyropia family include karengo, edible seaweeds traditionally eaten and highly prized by Maori as a taonga or treasure.
Reading dreams: Japanese researchers have shown that brain activity can be decoded to reveal basic content of dreams during sleep. Participants’ fMRI signals were similar when dreaming of a scene or viewing a related image while awake. Drawing on this, the researchers developed a decoding model that, retrospectively, was able to detect basic categories of the dreams.
Tropic ice core key to climate past and future: US Researchers have extracted an ice core from the Peruvian Andes which gives a year-by-year account of the last 1,800 years of climate in the tropics. They describe the find as a “Rosetta Stone” with which to compare other climate histories from Earth’s tropical and subtropical regions over the last two millennia. The cores provide a new tool for researchers to study Earth’s past climate, and better understand the climate changes that are happening today.
Climate change boost for penguins: For an Adelie penguin colony on Beaufort Island in the Ross Sea, climate change has had some unexpected benefits. US and NZ researchers have found that receding ice on the island has lead to increased nesting habitat and increases in population. Researchers used aerial and satellite imagery dating back to 1958 to track changes in ice cover on the island, and compared this with population changes and temperature records.
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Longevity in the limelight: The Ministry of Health has announced that $1.8million in funding will go into a study following more than 900 elderly New Zealanders to find out what helps them live longer lives.
Sunbed restrictions: The government will be amending legislation to prohibit access to commercial sunbeds for people under 18 years of age, due to concerns over skin cancers like melanoma.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• International Symposium on Soil and Plant Analysis – 8-12 April, Queenstown.
• What if… Health statistics were not what they appeared? - “What-if Wednesday” lecture from Prof Philip Schluter – 10 April, Christchurch.
• Ending the Tobacco Epidemic: Realising a Smokefree Aotearoa/New Zealand – Lecture from Prof Stanton Glantz (US) – 11 April, Dunedin.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.