Archive March 2010

Government still wants profitable science Peter Griffin Mar 29

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There has been a whirlwind of activity in the science sector with the Government turning around its feedback on the CRI Taskforce report in the space of three weeks and setting out its plan to implement most if not all of the recommendations.

The Government response to the taskforce report is below. The bulk of the report gets the endorsement of the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Dr Wayne Mapp, Minister of Finance Bill English as well as MoRST and treasury officials. But there are a few sticking points and not surprisingly, they both involve money.

Writes Dr Mapp on sticky point number 1:

The Minister of Finance and I have concerns about bringing together science policy, funding and monitoring into a single agency (Recommendation 25 of the report, paragraph 17 of this paper). We suggest institutional arrangements in science are addressed through the ongoing machinery of government review processes currently being undertaken by central agencies.

Treasury weighs in on this, which it considers “potentially the most contentious” of the CRI Taskforce recommendations:

We agree that it would make sense to combine policy, long-term funding (as we consider that long-term funding can be considered ‘equity-like’ with strong links to ownership matters), and non-financial monitoring. This would reduce fragmentation in science policy which is a recognised problem.

We agree COMU should provide financial and Board appointment expertise, as they do for all Crown companies. Treasury would recommend Ministers consider whether contestable funding should remain in a separate agency. This would ensure the contestable funding body stayed independent from CRIs providing a more level playing field across public and private research organisations, and some checks and balances on the combined RS&T entity. We note that machinery of government options will be considered as part of SSC’s machinery of government process.

If scientists and their managers are stressed by the ever-constant nine per cent rate of return required of CRIs, they shouldn’t expect a return on investment target to disappear entirely, despite the less profit-driven aims the CRI Taskforce advocates. Writes Dr Mapp on sticky point no. 2:

We also have concerns about abandoning a return on equity as a performance measure. As a general rule, those CRIs with a clear sense of mission are also financially sustainable. A proper financial objective is an important measure of performance.

Treasury for its part questions whether knowledge transfer between the public and private sector will be adversely impacted if the CRIs are ordered to stay out of commercialisation activities:

Treasury has some concern that if Government is to actively discourage CRIs from investing in commercialisation, this might in some instances limit legitimate options for transferring knowledge.

Some tricky issues to sort out then, but overall, a government largely in agreement with a taskforce it has created, which can’t be said of all the taskforces that have recently reported!

GM ruling quashed in Court of Appeal – now what? Peter Griffin Mar 29


The journal Nature features a report from Sydney-based New Zealander Branwen Morgan, looking at the implications of the New Zealand Court of Appeal move to quash an earlier High Court decision that saw Agresearch applications to undertake genetic modification research thrown out.

I blogged on the Court of Appeal case in February heading the article: Will Agresearch’s Court of Appeal bid pay off? The decision handed down last week (see the paper below) shows it clearly did pay off. It was obvious during the Court of Appeal hearing that the argument GE Free NZ had earlier scored a High Court win on the back of, was fundamentally flawed.

GE Free NZ was essentially saying that Agresearch’s applications to undertake GM research involving a range of different species were so generic and broad-ranging in scope that they shouldn’t even have been considered by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA). That would mean that on receiving an application, ERMA would be required to rule straight away whether an application could be considered, effectively vetting applications before the substance of them would have the scientific ruler run over them.

It is like throwing out a submission to a poetry competition before it can be read because the entry  doesn’t appear to have enough stanzas.

It is an argument that the Court of Appeal judges saw little merit in. They concluded:

We accept that there is a real issue as to whether the generic nature of the applications means that they fail to comply with what appear to be relatively specific requirements in s 40(2). However, we also accept the submission made on behalf of
both AgResearch and ERMA that the determination of that issue is a matter requiring a degree of scientific knowledge and the application of that knowledge to the case at hand in circumstances where it will not be readily apparent to ERMA at
the time it accepts the application, and which will be difficult for a Court to evaluate in judicial review.

In our view, the essentially mechanical decision made by ERMA to accept and register the applications should be allowed to stand. ERMA should continue its process of assessment of the applications. We therefore allow the appeal and quash the orders
made in the High Court setting aside ERMA’s decision to accept the applications and directing ERMA to take no further steps towards hearing and asserting the applications.

The decision means ERMA is free to consider applications in the way it has been doing so – if the basic “mechanical” processes of lodging the applications are completed on the right forms with the right boxes ticked, ERMA will be obliged to look in further detail at an application. That sounds like common sense as lets face it, those applying to ERMA are generally organisations that have done their homework and are serious about undertaking serious research here. Bogus applications from crazy scientists therefore are likely to be spiked soon after being received even if they do make it onto the desk of whoever at ERMA is tasked with processing the applications.

So Agresearch is pretty much back where it was when the applications were first lodged in late 2008 and ERMA has the task of considering those four applications again. The outcome is as uncertain as it was first time around.  Agresearch is  no doubt frustrated about the delay the court action has caused. The Nature article certainly points to this:

Despite the recent Court of Appeal ruling in AgResearch’s favour, Barry Scott, head of the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and former ERMA board member, says these sorts of legal challenges can stifle business development. Jimmy Suttie, science and technology general manager for AgResearch’s applied biotechnologies group, acknowledges this possibility. “The impact is twofold: it makes NZ companies themselves reluctant to invest and, because of the way the international media may view the actions of GE Free NZ, it can suggest that the anti-GM attitude in New Zealand is more extreme than it really is,” he says.

GE Free NZ is making noises about a Supreme Court bid to have the decision reversed. Surely it would be more productive to leave ERMA to actually look at the substance of the applications and decide for itself whether the applications are too general and vague in nature and even ask for more information if necessary? Isn’t that what the role of a regulator should be?

A compelling case for animal testing Peter Griffin Mar 27


John Forman is a dedicated if unconventional New Zealand activist,  but his cause is one which is putting him at odds with the more vocal and occasionally militant end of the Kiwi activist spectrum – anti-GM campaigners and those who protest against animal testing.

Forman: More animal testing, not less.

Forman: More animal testing, not less.

Forman, the executive director of the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders, has been on the road recently – first in Hamilton, where he gave submissions at public hearings held by the Environmental Risk Management Authority which was hearing feedback on applications by Agresearch to, as the Herald put it: “put human genes into goats, sheep and cows to try to get the animals to make medicinal human proteins in their milk”.

We need to trial genetic modification techniques, said Forman, to develop medicines and therapies that could cure rare genetic disorders like Alpha-Mannosidosis which is suffered by his twin children who are now in the their thirties but who have struggled throughout their lives with physical and mental disablement. GE Free NZ also fronted at the hearings to oppose the Agresearch applications.

This week Forman was in Auckland speaking at the NZBio conference where he put up slides of his twin children and many other slides of people he has met around the world who suffer (or suffered, as some of them have since died), rare lysomal storage diseases. On both occasions he spoke of the “moral obligation” of scientists to pursue treatments that would save lives and ease the suffering of those currently afflicted with incurable disorders.

Forman’s argument is compelling, but so too is that of the animal protestors who gathered outside Sky City earlier in the week with their mascot Charlie the beagle to protest the appearance of animal testing scientist Dr Allen Goldenthal of Valley Animal Research Centre.

The protestors from Animal Freedom Aotearoa were upset at the use of beagles like Charlie to test drugs and claim the dogs are often “kept in unsanitary conditions and become frightened when they are dosed or injected with drugs”.

Anyone looking at Charlie’s soft floppy ears and twinkling brown eyes would cringe at the thought of him being killed and dissected in the name of science. But few could look at Forman’s slides displaying heartbreaking pictures of young girls and boys physically disabled with disorders most of us have never heard of – Pompe disease, I-Cell disease, Morquio syndrome, and argue against scientists doing everything in their power to eliminate such diseases.

So it was then, across the road from the roulette wheels and blackjack tables of Sky City Casino, a battle of moral one-upmanship was underway.

Dr Goldenthal was clear where he stood:

He told the conference:

“Dogs are emotive because they are part of our family, but so are our children”

And so was John Forman, who rather provocatively, argued for more animal testing, rather than less.

“I don’t believe there’s a moral argument that we should be reducing the amount of animals we use,” he said.

Beagles share 86 per cent of their genes with people.

Beagles share 86 per cent of their genes with people.

So which argument trumps the other? Science has already answered resoundingly in favour of animal testing, which is carried out widely around the world on everything from rats and mice to pigs and monkeys. Pressure to curtail animal testing has been resisted generally rather successfully by the scientific community which has argued that being unable to use animals would mean much slower development of treatments as humans would have to test them,  creating all sorts of health and safety nightmares. Who really wants to be a human guinea pig?

But the argument is also more nuanced than Forman or Animal Freedom Aotearoa portray it. In a series of rather dry presentations, other scientists talking at NZBio outlined efforts underway to make the sharing of animal tissue among scientific research organisations more efficient. Currently, researchers coordinate sharing of tissue on an ad hoc basis, with little formal organisation  or oversight administered by themselves or a regulator like MAF. John Grew, of Australian-based consultancy Innovation Dynamics, said there was a desire in MAF, based on some recently commissioned research of scientists involved in animal testing, to understand tissue sharing better and perhaps create a pilot trial of a more efficient tissue-sharing model.

The implication is that through better coordination more fresh and frozen animal tissue could be shared, reducing overall the number of animals used in testing laboratories. There are limitations to this – scientists are particularly interested in what the effects of experimental drugs on living animals are – sharing animals in these situations may not be possible.

Animal testing obviously remains hugely important to medicine. The focus needs to be on making animal testing more efficient, as humane as possible and for scientists to better explain the outcomes of animal testing. That doesn’t necessarily mean more animal testing. Grew summed it up as the 3 Rs – reduce, refine, replace.

Microbe underpins $10 million govt clean tech investment Peter Griffin Mar 23


I’m at NZBio (updates on twitter @smcnz), where day two has been been dominated by updates from some of the country’s most innovative alternative energy start-ups.

The back-story for Auckland-based Lanzatech is well known – the company was formed in 2005 with plans to extract clean fuel from biomass like waste wood and high-energy crops like corn, but soon realised there was a better business model in generating fuel from the waste flue gases of steel mills.

Lanzatech's test plant at the Glenbrook steel mill  source: Lanzatech

Lanzatech's test plant at the Glenbrook steel mill source: Lanzatech

Since then Lanzatech, which counts Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall among its investors, has picked up funding from Silicon Valley luminary Vinod Khosla and from you and I in the form of $10 million in funding from the New Zealand Government.

Changing direction from more conventional biomass-type fuel stocks to using waste gas as its core ingredient required Lanzatech to turn to some sophisticated bio-chemistry for help. Co-founder and chief scientists Dr Sean Simpson spent two years developing a microbe that eats carbon monoxide and can generate energy by eating carbon derived from flue gas alone.The Lanzatech team sequenced the microbe’s genome, figured out its energy converting abilities and discovered that the microbe was incredibly immune to contaminants contained in flue gas emissions.

The key part of Lanzatech’s patented technology is the use of the microbes in the fermentation phase where the gas is converted to ethanol and chemicals.The process can also be used for processing biomass and municipal solid waste,  generating 380 litres of ethanol for each tonne of biomass.

Lanzatech has been trialling its waste gas to fuel conversation technology at the Glenbrook steel mill and Dr Simpson says the results suggest Lanzatech is ready for a commercial scale-up of the technology.

So where’s the market for this? In a word – China. With China producing over half the world’s steel, there’s a ready supply of flue gases which can be tapped for ethanol production. Speaking at NZBio, Sir Stephen Tindall said it was Lanzatech’s intention to partner with Chinese steel mills in revenue-sharing arrangements to produce ethanol from gases produced in the steel production process. He also said regualtory processes may in future see such use of waste gases from factories made mandatory by Governments.

“As regulations come on, companies will have to pay companies like Lanzatech to take away their emissions.”

The idea, said Dr Simpson was to keep the company’s intellectual property and R&D in New Zealand but work in joint-ventures with steel  mills around the world. By controlling the gas-to-fuel processing at the plants, Lanzatech hopes to keep its patented processes safe from being exploited by rivals, But Dr Simpson admitted that in the Chinese market where theft of IP and reverse-engineering of patented technologies is common, this would prove challenging.

A promising start-up then, and one ready to comemrcialise its technology. Lanzatech perhaps best sums up its commercial advantage itself, in this blurb from its website:

LanzaTech’s process varies significantly from the traditional corn-based ethanol process. Corn ethanol is produced via the fermentation of sugars. Corn kernels are broken down into sugars through milling and hydrolysis operations. LanzaTech’s ethanol is produced by the LanzaTech process. The key to LanzaTech’s proprietary technology is a microbial catalyst that can convert carbon monoxide to ethanol. Gas-to-fuel conversion with microbes has been under development for the last two decades. The commercialization barrier for these other processes has been the requirement for high amounts of hydrogen in the input gas stream. Elevated levels of hydrogen are not a feature of steel mill waste gases. LanzaTech therefore appears to have a window of opportunity not captured by competitors.

Remembering a New Zealand science icon Peter Griffin Mar 20

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The tributes have been flowing for Sir Ian Axford, the eminent New Zealand astrophysicist who died this week aged 77.

Like fellow New Zealander Sir William Pickering, who led unmanned space exploration missions for NASA, Sir Ian was a hugely respected figure in the space science community and in the 1980s helped lead space missions involving NASA, European Space Agency and Russian (then USSR) scientists.

The obituaries pages in the country’s major newspapers devoted large amounts of space to paying tirbute to Sir Ian. Below are a selection of them:

Who covers science in the New Zealand media? Peter Griffin Mar 19


When we set up the Science Media Centre back in June 2008, science reporting in the mainstream media was largely left to a handful of mainly junior reporters who had to juggle the round alongside general reporting duties and who weren’t destined to stick with science for long.

The situation, thankfully, has changed somewhat for the better, though the media is still up against it when it comes to resourcing news gathering in general. At least now there’s a stable of reporters committed to covering science-related issues across the media and while they don’t all get to cover science and environmental issues full-time, there seems to be a growing appetite for covering in these areas.

In a week where the polluted state of our rivers and streams and an environmental snapshot of the Auckland region made front-page news, that is not surprising.

So who are the reporters covering these types of stories? When I randomly ask people to name a New Zealand science writer, I’m usually greated with a blank stare, but occasionally people will come back with Simon Collins (former New Zealand Herald science reporter now social issues reporter), Rebecca Priestley (still doing the odd feature for the Listener) and Kim Hill (still featuring a steady stream of scientists on her Saturday morning radio show).

But there’s a new generation of journalists coming through and enthusiastically tacking science-related subject matter. In the first of what I hope will be a multi-part series, we’ve profiled some them…

New Zealand has some fine science and environment reporters reporting for print, television and radio. Based all over the country, from Auckland to Wellington to Christchurch, they help to ensure that New Zealanders are kept up to date with science and environment issues both here and abroad.

The Science Media Centre approached some of them, and asked them to share how and why they became science/environment reporters, why they love it, and their advice for inspiring journalists.  Their answers, and more besides, are below, and we will add further profiles as they come in.

eloise gibson smallEloise Gibson, Science Reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Why did you get into science journalism?

I’m a curious type and I love reading good science stories in the newspapers. I became the science reporter partly because it fitted well with my other round — covering the environment. It is impossible to write about environmental issues without covering the scientific research, so it made sense to extend that to cover other science developments as well.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

I think for any science journalist climate change is both the single most interesting topic and the single most difficult to cover. I also love the smaller quirky stories — findings of ancient creatures or odd plants.

What challenges are there to being a science reporter in New Zealand?

I think science journalists face the same issues as all journalists, including that there is never enough time to do their jobs. Explaining complex science is particularly challenging when you are on a tight deadline.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting science?

My favourite thing about my job is when I get talking to scientist who is passionate about their particular niche, whether it be an obscure creature or a tiny slice of the solar system. It never ceases to amaze me that there are entire teams of people dedicated to finding out about things that most people don’t know exist. I’ve found scientists are generally very patient about explaining their work to me, and there are some great characters out there working at CRIs and universities.

What would you say to aspiring science reporters?



david williams smallDavid Williams, Environment Reporter for

The Press

Why did you get into environment journalism?

To save the world, of course.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

Climate change and conservation.

What challenges are there to being a environment reporter in New Zealand?

Many and varied. For those of us without academic science training the biggest challenge is the translation of jargon-filled reports into easy-to-understand language. More generally, condensing large reports into a few hundred words. It all comes with the territory, really.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting environmental stories?

Getting out and about. Cleaning up rivers and seeing conservation work first hand.

What would you say to aspiring environment reporters?

Set a goal and work towards it. Mine is to have one story appear in National Geographic.


Samantha Hayes, Environment Reporter for TV3 sam hayes small

Why did you get into environment journalism?

After a few years in the studio at TV3 I decided it was time to get out and about reporting again. I grew up traipsing around in New Zealand’s wilderness and what better way to spend the working day than filming stories about our native species or research related to sustaining that beautiful environment.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

Anything to do with our national parks, native birds and plants and endangered species. New Zealand research, especially related to bio fuels and ways we can make our communities more sustainable. Climate change, whaling, conservation, fisheries and waste reduction.

What challenges are there to being a environment reporter in New Zealand?

A lot of research papers are written overseas so it’s tricky finding people to interview on camera, that’s where SMC can be a great help!

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting environmental stories?

The most rewarding part is meeting people who are extremely passionate about their slice of the world, people who have spent decades researching penguins or seals. I’m have a feeling one day I’ll interview someone and suddenly realise they have my dream job and I’ll never make it back to the newsroom…

What would you say to aspiring environment reporters?

Listen to every point of view, it’ll keep your stories honest and balanced.


will hineWill Hine, Science Reporter for Radio New Zealand

Why did you get into science journalism?

My father worked for NIWA for many years as a marine pathologist and I think my interest grew out of that.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

I find earth sciences extremely interesting. I also like how science and technology can be used create innovative, world leading products.

What challenges are there to being a science reporter in New Zealand?

I think many science reporters, like me, need to juggle science with other reporting duties. That can be a challenge. There’s also the constant challenge of making complex information understandable to the audience, while staying true to the science.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting science?

I found the opening of the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre in Palmerston North very interesting.

What would you say to aspiring science reporters?

It pays to repeat back to scientists your understanding of what they’re saying so they’ve got the opportunity to tweak any points you might have got wrong.

Lenski and 50,000 generations of E. coli Peter Griffin Mar 17


Richard Dawkins didn’t mention it during his visit to New Zealand, but a long-running experiment that most clearly demonstrates how evolution works celebrated a major milestone last month.

Since 1988, at his lab at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski has been running an ongoing experiment that demonstrates on a small scale how genetic mutations and natural selection work over successive generations – giving clues as to how us humans have evolved.

The so-called E. coli long-term evolution experiment focuses on 12 beakers containing bacteria grown from one original E. coli bacterium and that have been carefully nurtured for around 22 years. The idea is that because bacteria reproduce so quickly, changes over thousands of generations of bacteria could be observed in a relatively short period of time. Dawkins says the reason people struggle to get their heads around evolution is because, for species of large animals like mammals, evolution happens incredibly slowly – noticeable changes take millions of years to manifest themselves. Here then was an opportunity to watch evolution in fast-forward.

e coli

Lenski's experiment - look no further for evolution in action. Source: Wikipedia

The 12 beakers of bacteria are fed daily with glucose to nurture the populations of bacteria. This is a ritual that has been carried out since day one and last month, on February 14th, the 50,000 generation of bacteria developed in the beakers. Through the years, Lenski has been able to observe how these separated populations that came from the same source have grown – and in the process made some startling discoveries.

Many of the populations developed in the same way as you would expect with the uniform environment and diet. All of the populations grew faster with successive generations until around the 20,000th generation when growth levelled off at 70 per cent faster than the original strain. But along the way, as is the nature of evolution, the bacteria underwent numerous genetic mutations – hundreds of millions of these. Only a tiny number of them fixed in the populations and only 10 – 20  were identified as having positive effects on the populations.

Then Lenski’s team discovered something very unusual, as New Scientist explains in this 2008 article to mark the 20th year of the experiment:

Mostly, the patterns Lenski saw were similar in each separate population. All 12 evolved larger cells, for example, as well as faster growth rates on the glucose they were fed, and lower peak population densities.

“But sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations – the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

“Indeed, the inability to use citrate is one of the traits by which bacteriologists distinguish E. coli from other species. The citrate-using mutants increased in population size and diversity.”

Dawkins in his speech last week described genetic mutation as an incredibly random incident that if successful for the organism, is followed by a fairly predictable path of evolution. But was the ability to metabolise citrate the result of one random genetic mutation?

New Scientist continues:

By this time, Lenski calculated, enough bacterial cells had lived and died that all simple mutations must already have occurred several times over.

That meant the “citrate-plus” trait must have been something special – either it was a single mutation of an unusually improbable sort, a rare chromosome inversion, say, or else gaining the ability to use citrate required the accumulation of several mutations in sequence.

Lenski had been freezing samples of the bacteria every 500th generation from the very beginning, so he was able to go back through the generations, revive the frozen bacteria and see if they would evolve as the same citrate-gobbling mutants. He was able to use genetic markers to show the experiments weren’t subject to contamination. Lenski found that cloned populations from those frozen samples were able to develop the ability to use citrate, put only in bacteria drawn from populations 20,000 generations old or greater and only very rarely (around once per trillion cells).

Some type of mutation must have happened around generation 20,000 the researchers suggest, that set the path for evolution that would be triggered with subsequent mutation around generation 31,000 – 31,500.

Wikipedia sums it up best:

The authors interpret these results as indicating that the evolution of citrate utilization in this one population depended on an earlier, perhaps non-adaptive potentiating mutation that had the effect of increasing the rate of mutation to citrate utilization to an accessible level (with the data they present further suggesting that citrate utilization required at least two mutations subsequent to this potentiating mutation). More generally the authors suggest that these results indicate (following the argument of Stephen Jay Gould) “that historical contingency can have a profound and lasting impact” on the course of evolution.[4]“

Absolutely staggering stuff and an experiment that is yet to be mined for still more gems of knowledge about evolution. Who knows what the future holds for those generations of bacteria, multiplying, mutating and evolving in their own little lifecycle in that lab in Michigan…

Dawkins and Aldrin down, Rees to come Peter Griffin Mar 16


It has been a huge couple of weeks for the celebration of science, with visits from evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins and Apollo 11 astronaut and moon walker Buzz Aldrin.

And the season of science-themed visits isn’t over with Martin Lord Rees, the cosmologist and president of the Royal Society of London still to come.

So far, the high-profile visitors have been very generous with media appearances which has made for some interesting interviews – typically on radio.

There’s this Graeme Hill interview on Radio Live with Richard Dawkins, where they also take questions from listeners, much as Dawkins did at the end of his lecture in Wellington:

Dawkins takes calls on Radio Live

Graeme Hill also caught up with Buzz Aldrin on reaching the moon – this is well worth listening to:

Buzz Aldrin speaks to Graeme Hill

Over at Radio New Zealand, Chris Laidlaw has an excellent interview with Dawkins:

Dawkins on evolution

Martin Lord Rees is giving lectures around the country next week – he’s in Christchurch on Monday the 22nd (sold out), Wellington on the 23rd.

Details here.

The evolution of gratitude Peter Griffin Mar 11

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It was a shame Richard Dawkins only spoke for an hour at his Wellington event last night.

richard-dawkinsHe was only able to get halfway through his lecture before having to break off for a Q&A sessions which was handled superbly by local writer Bernard Beckett. But he repeated his familiar message that we should take wonder in our very existence because it is such a fluke.

“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you’ll ever have to confront, don’t dare ever see your life as boring, monotonous or joyless.”

This Dominion Post article covers the content of Dawkin’s lecture well, from his description of the evolution of eyes to the role of enzymes in shaping DNA.

Along the way he paid tribute to New Zealand scientist David Penny, who he said had been able to identify “trees” of evolution common to species by comparing their genetics at a molecular level, in the same way Darwin had been able to identify evolutionary traits by comparing anatomy.

Dawkins finished by suggesting that humans are in such awe at their own existence that they have to show gratitude to someone for it. Traditionally we have thanked God. Or as Dawkins puts it:

“When you feel just plain grateful [to be alive] then who are you being grateful to? You have to invent a God or pixies or something to be grateful to.”

Dawkins view – just be happy to be alive! There’s enough to wonder at in the world without inventing a creator to pay tribute to. Well, that’s my interpretation of what he said anyway…

Recording the lecture at the Michael Fowler Centre was strictly prohibited so I left my recorder turned off. But here’s a recording of Dawkin’s talk (via telelink from London) at the Readers and Writers’ festival in Auckland last year.

Monbiot: All out war on science Peter Griffin Mar 10

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The Guardian’s George Monbiot has a thoughtful column this week about the attacks on climate science and how they have widened to take aim at science in general.

The last sentence of his column would seem to aptly sum up the state of public opinion on climate change:

The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.

This week at the Science Media Centre we featured a panel of scientists talking about this exact issue – climate change fatigue and why the public has grown tired of hearing about the potentially devastating impacts of climate change. What’s their solution? Science, they say, needs to change so that the social element of climate change is better accounted for when the biophysical aspects of the science are discussed.

Sciblogger and climate scientist, Dr Andy Reisinger summed it up well in the local context at a Science Techology and Society (STS) here in Wellington earlier in the week. He said that there is actually precious little research completed to date that looks at potential scenarios for climate change mitigation and adapation in New Zealand beyond 2025. We’ve become so wrapped up in what the climate science is suggesting will happen and trying to gauge the robustness of the science that we haven’t done enough to suggest exactly how these ominous scenarios will actually impact on people.

Businesses such as Zespri are becoming more interested in this as they plan for more sustainable development over the long-term. But business, government and science need to put more emphasis on the social element of climate change scenarios if there is to be the social change that will allow us to tackle climate change.

On the subject of climate change adapation, this Climate Change Research Institute lecture may be of interest to Wellington readers…


NZCCRI Seminar Series 2010:

Fractured Science and the Politics of Climate Change
Dr. Barry Smit
Professor of Geography
Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change
University of Guelph

Friday 19th of March 2010, 12:15 to 1:15pm
Old Government Buildings Lecture Theatre 2, Victoria University.

This presentation addresses the physical and human forces underlying
climate change and its implications for the environment and development.
The roles of science and politics in national and international policy
responses are outlined – mitigation and adaptation. Examples are given of
adaptation initiatives in regions ranging from the Arctic to Bangladesh
and Nigeria to Chile. The needs and opportunities for truly
interdisciplinary science and practice are presented.

Barry Smit is internationally recognized for his work on climate change
impacts and adaptation. He is a scientist-practitioner whose
interdisciplinary research explores the relationships between
socio-economic systems and physical-biological systems. His work has been
applied in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Samoa, Fiji, Chile, Ghana, Uganda and the
Arctic. He has advised governments and organizations across Canada and
internationally. He has served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), and is a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

This presentation is sponsored by the Association for Canadian Studies in
Australia and New Zealand (ACSANZ) and the Government of Canada.

No RSVP is required.

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