Column – Science Media Centre
PCE Updates; Antarctic biodiversity; Breast cancer; SAVVY courses; Ocean sampling day; Quoted; Friday video; New from the SMC; Sciblogs highlights; Sci-tech eventsSMC Heads-Up: Difficult decisions on mining, new SAVVY pricing and AUT’s giant squid dissection
Issue 284 20-26 June 2014
Mines, hydro dams revisited by PCE
It has been a busy week for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, with not one but two important update reports released by her office.
Commissioner Dr Jan Wright published the updates as a follow up on the recommendations in two earlier reports, one on mining and one on hydroelectric dams.
The first update focused on her report Making difficult decisions: Mining the conservation estate. The2010 document described how permission for mining on conservation land can be more easily gained than permission for other commercial activities like tourism.
“The Government has responded positively to some of the recommendations in the Commissioner’s report, but not to the most important recommendations,” Dr Wright concluded in her update.
“The joint decision-making by the two Ministers [Conservation and Energy] about access for mining on conservation land undermines the role of the Minister of Conservation as guardian of the conservation estate. It is important that the law and policy be designed to ensure a net conservation benefit when mining does take place on conservation land.”
The second update focused on the response to her 2012 reportWild rivers or hydroelectricity: Natural heritage versus climate change, which was spurred by plans to build a dam on the Mokihinui River on the West Coast.
The commissioner concluded that, “Overall, the protection of wild and scenic rivers that flow through conservation land is being improved. Outside of the conservation estate the favouring of hydroelectric development over the protection of wild and scenic rivers continues.”
Both update reports highlighted the need for more work to be done to protect the environment, but also acknowledged that there will inevitably be trade-offs.
In the case of mining, the commissioner said that pest control efforts undertaken by the sector could mean a net benefit for the environment. “The greatest threat to our conservation estate is not mining, but introduced pests. There is potential for a win-win, if mining companies pay for substantial pest control,” she wrote.
For hydroelectric dams, the environmental costs of non-renewable energy had to be balanced against the environmental concerns of building a dam.
“I am certainly not against hydroelectricity – it is an enormously valuable way of generating electricity without emitting carbon dioxide”, said Dr Wright in a release.
“But the system that decides whether or not a hydroelectric dam should be built on a wild and scenic river should weigh the environmental benefits of both carefully.”
On the science radar this week…
Antarctic biodiversity at risk – ecologists
A team of Australian researchers are calling for Antarctic biodiversity to be better protected from biological invasions and human activity, saying the last untouched wilderness on Earth is at risk.
designated as specially protected areas.
The authors say policy makers should aim to for Antarctica to meetAichi Target 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 which calls for “at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas” to be protected to ensure conservation of biodiversity. Antarctica is not currently included in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, however we show that’s not true,” said lead author, Dr Justine Shaw of the University of Queensland.
“We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. We also need to ensure that Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species.”
The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary:
Professor Steve Pointing, Professor of Applied Ecology, AUT, comments:
“I have years of experience leading research teams in Antarctica’s ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys, the scenery alone is spectacular but to biologists like myself the endemic creatures we find there make it unique. I think the call for increased protected areas will gain huge traction among the science community. If treaty signatories cannot agree this then it will reflect very poorly on our stewardship of this continent.”
Professor Karen Scott, Professor in Law, University of Canterbury, comments:
“I think the authors are too dismissive of the more general status of Antarctica as a protected area… activities on Antarctica are relatively tightly regulated and subject to requirements such as environmental impact assessment, and controls on impact on biodiversity and removal of waste.”
“I agree with the author’s final conclusion that we need to develop a systematic network of protected areas to protect Antarctic biodiversity as a whole.”
You can read more expert commentary on this issue on the Science Media Centre website.
Breast cancer screening debated
Is breast cancer screening actually saving lives? A new study has brought the debate into the public eye, played out in the pages of BMJ.
The impetus for discussion was started by a new study from Norway examining impact of screening on mortality.
The authors looked at the effectiveness of modern mammography screening by measuring breast cancer mortality among screened and unscreened women. The authors found that an invitation to mammography screening (for women aged 50-69) was associated with a 28 per cent reduced risk of death from breast cancer compared with not being invited to screening.
That means that for every 10,000 women invited to screening, about 27 deaths from breast cancer might be avoided during their lifetime – a benefit the authors describe as a “substantial effect”. So far so good, right?
Apparently not, an accompanying BMJ commentary from US researchers played down the results, saying, “The Norwegian study largely confirms what is already known: the benefits of screening mammography are modest at best. While the benefits are small, the harms of screening are real and include overdiagnosis, psychological stress, and exorbitant healthcare costs.”
The editorial authors call for women to be given balanced information to help them make informed decisions about screening.
What about here in NZ?
The SMC collected the following expert commentary from Belinda Scott, medical adviser to the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation:
“The study shows a definite reduction in deaths when women are screened, and that reflects what we’ve seen throughout the world.
“It’s important for women to understand that screening does have risks, and to be able to opt out, but we do have a strict, well-monitored screening programme here through BreastScreen Aotearoa.”
“It would interesting to undertake a similar study of mammography benefits in New Zealand – much of the data used in the Norway study is available in the breast cancer patient registers funded by the NZBCF and it would be great to see that used to gain insights into the effectiveness of our own screening programme.”
You can read more expert commentary on the Science Media centre website.
New prices, scholarships for SAVVY
Applications are open for our Science Media SAVVY courses in Auckland and Hamilton.
Check out the details here, including a detailed course breakdown.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has increased SMC funding for SAVVY workshops allowing us to drop the price to $595 per person!
We can now also offer two post graduate scholarships per workshop. This is an incredible opportunity to gain some intensive training to give you confidence working with the media – whatever stage of your scientific career.
Ocean Sampling Day a global check up
This Saturday, a simultaneous sampling of the world’s oceans will be the single biggest attempt to gather information on the marine environment and New Zealand scientists will be ensuring data from this hemisphere is included in the results.
A team led by Dr Federico Baltar, from Department of Marine Science at the University of Otago, will go out on the University’s research vesselthis Saturday to collect seawater samples containing myriads of microorganisms for sequencing of their genes. This, together with environmentally relevant measurements, will help scientists to determine the status of our oceans.
All samples will be sent to Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany for analysis, and samples will be stored at the Smithsonian Institution’s famous Natural History Museum in Washington DC, USA at their brand-new BioArchiving facility.
“This is an important occasion as it is the first time scientists from all around the world are joining their efforts to do the sampling on one day and under the same conditions,” says Dr Baltar.
The University of Auckland’s Institute of Marine Science is also taking part in the Ocean Sampling Day event.
“This is data-gathering on a truly giant scale and the information generated will be unprecedented in terms of what it might tell us about the world’s marine ecosystems,” says University of Auckland Associate Professor of Marine Science, Mark Costello.
A total of 167 sampling sites have confirmed their participation in the event on June 21st, 2014.
Find out more on the Ocean Sampling Day website.
“I think you’ll have to look for a terrestrial explanation.”
Alan Gilmore, from Tekapo’s Mt John Observatory, shoots down meteor theory behind the mysterious ‘Auckland Bangs’
The Friday video…
AUT Giant Squid dissection
Policy news and developments
Independent med funding – The Health Research Council has announced $27 million over four years in capability funding for independent research organisations.
Disability stats: Statistics NZ has released the latest data on people with disabilities in New Zealand.
Airspace plan: The government has released The National Airspace and Air Navigation Plan focusing on the introduction of technology solutions in the sector.
New From the SMC
Breast cancer screening: New research from Norway fuels the debate over the benefits and harms of breast cancer screening.
Antarctic protection: Experts comment on calls to better protect Antarctic biodiversity.
Growing Up in NZ: Read media coverage of the latest report from NZ’s largest longitudinal study.
Nobody’s fault: GeoNet’s Caroline Little explains why we can’t know where every geological fault-line is.
HRC funding: Read coverage of the research funded in the Health Research Council’s 2014 round.
From the UK SMC:
From the AusSMC:
Some of the highlights from this week’s Sciblogs posts:
How mixed-age air bubbles ‘smear’ the climate record — Lynley Hargreaves interviews Victoria University’s Dr Ruzica Dadic about the ancients secrets hidden in a slice of ice.
InFrequently Asked Questions
Would a sugary fizzy drink tax reduce health inequalities? Probably Yes – Tony Blakely works through the idea of a sugar tax.
Public Health Expert
Some of the research papers making headlines this week.
Fish-eating spiders: A systematic review has found that spiders from at least five different families prey on small fish in the wild, using powerful neurotoxins and enzymes to kill and digest fish even larger than they are. The researchers report that spiders preying on fish occurs in many countries around the world — including New Zealand — with most catches occurring in a warmer climate.
Skulls blur Neanderthal evolution: Researchers have analysed the biggest collection of ancient hominin fossils ever recovered from a single excavation site, shedding light on the origin and evolution of Neanderthals, an extinct species of the Homo family. Skull fossils exhibited both Neanderthal-like features and features associated with earlier humans, suggesting Neanderthals developed their distinctive jaws and teeth and other features separately, at different times, not all at once as some scientists have thought.
Origami microscopes: Want a microscope in your pocket? US researchers have developed the Foldscope, a fully functional flat-packed microscope with adjustable lenses and electronics. These light, rugged instruments can survive harsh field conditions while providing a diversity of imaging capabilities, thus serving wide-ranging applications for cost-effective, portable microscopes in science and education. No media release available.
Masterpiece cuisine: Food arranged to resemble a work of art (specifically Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Painting Number 201’) tastes better than if ingredients are arranged neatly or tossed together on a plate, according to new research. Images available – including a number of other classic artworks re-imagined in dinner form.
Sun addiction? Extended exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes the release of feel-good opiate-like hormones called endorphins leading to physical dependence, tolerance, and addiction-like behaviour in rodents, according to a new study. The findings could explain why people have an instinctive desire to be in the sun, despite its known health risks.
Upcoming sci-tech events
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.
• Ocean Sampling Day – 21 June, Auckland and Dunedin.
• Global Resource Scarcity: Catalyst for Conflict or Collaboration? – Otago Foreign Policy School – 27-29 June, Dunedin.
• New Zealand International Science Festival – International and local guests, presentations and events -5 – 13 July, Dunedin.