Archive May 2010

Will Wakefield’s ban quell anti-vax denialism? Peter Griffin May 25


The doctor who, for whatever reasons, nurtured the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism has been struck off by the General Medical Council making it impossible for him to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.

North & South June edition

North & South June edition

But the decision by the GMC to dismantle Andrew Wakefield’s career once and for all is unlikely to convince of their folly those parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Experts disproved Wakefield’s claims years ago, long before the GMC began investigating him, yet a hardcore of parents continue to opt out of vaccination programmes around the world, thwarting the herd immunity so crucial to disease spreading among children.

Anyone looking for an insight into the thinking of such parents should read Joanna Wane’s excellent cover story in North & South this month, “The Case for Vaccination”. The cover (pictured left) shows seven year-old Charlotte Cleverley-Bisman, who missed out on the meningococcal B (MeNZB) vaccine by a few weeks back in 2004.

Aged just six months, she was struck down with meningococcol septicaemia, which claimed all of her limbs. If time had been on her side she would have got her jab and life would be very different for this brave young girl today.

Wane interviews everyone from immunisation experts to housewives in her piece. Virtually all agree vaccinating children is worth the small risk of them suffering an adverse reaction. One voice stands out however, that of Huia Minogue, a 34 year-old part-time marketing consultant and mother of a four year old boy, Roman. Huia has an erratic approach towards vaccination – she had Roman vaccinated for whooping cough and tetanus, but not Hepatitis or Hib (haemophilus influenzae type b). She does her own research on vaccination and explains:

“I was breastfeeding, using cotton nappies, making sure there was no lead in our paint and no colouring in his food. You’re creating this wholesome, natural little environment. Why would you want to inject terrible viruses into a small infant?”

Huia, as much as she loves little Roman, doesn’t understand how vaccines work and as she weighs up whether to give him his MMR shot which is due, I doubt Wakefield’s thorough discrediting and banning will factor into her decision-making. She also told Wane, apparently close to tears:

“Times have changed. People don’t want to be told ‘Just do this’. They’re asking ‘Where’s the proof?’”

The GMC decision comes 12 years after Wakefield and colleagues published their dodgy paper in The Lancet triggering a wave of anti-vaccine sentiment that led to plummeting vaccination rates and a resurgence of diseases like measles. Over a decade on, Wakefield’s legacy is a lingering suspicion of vaccinations among parents the world over.

Here’s what scientists approached by the Science Media Centre in London had to say about Wakefield’s professional demise:

Dr Jennifer M Best, Emeritus Reader in Virology at King’s College London, said:

“I hope that this ruling will finally persuade the public and some misguided journalists that Dr Wakefield behaved irresponsibly in suggesting that there might be a link between the MMR vaccine and gastrointestinal disease and autism. Many studies have shown that MMR is a safe vaccine. It is important that the uptake of MMR is improved, to ensure that measles and rubella do not recur in the UK.”

Professor Terence Stephenson, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

’Measles, mumps and rubella vaccines have all been shown to be safe and UK families are fortunate to have free access to these which is not true of many parts of the world. The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination programme.

’We cannot stress too strongly that all children and young people should have the MMR vaccine. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe.”

And this also courtesy of the SMC from Dr Evan Harris, the former MP and medical doctor who originally urged the GMC to investigate the case:

“Today’s decision, while welcome, does not close this matter because it is about more than one man.  There needs to be an enquiry as to how these unacceptable invasive tests came to be done on so many vulnerable children despite the existence of ethics committees designed to prevent this sort of abuse, and the medical establishment needs to ask itself whether there are any other published papers, based on the same flawed research, that need to be retracted as the Lancet paper eventually was.

“It took a determined journalist to expose what happened to these children and to public funding and I am not satisfied that something similar could not happen again.  Medical journals need to review their systems of checks and hospitals must ensure their ethical oversight is fit for purpose.”

SMC timeline on the MMR scandal

MMR Timeline

1988 — MMR introduced in UK, for the first time boys are immunised against rubella, there is a chance of getting wider measles vaccine coverage and mumps vaccination is included for the first time.

1993 onwards — Andrew Wakefield proposes measles jab causes Crohn’s disease, this is later disproved

1995 — Uptake rate of vaccine is 95% enough for herd immunity for mumps, measles and rubella.

1998 — Andrew Wakefield suggests MMR and autism link at press briefing to launch research published in the Lancet

1998 — 14 year study suggests no problems with MMR vaccine published in Lancet.

1999 — Research published in the Lancet from the Royal Free, where Wakefield did his research, finds no evidence for MMR and autism link.

2000 — Andrew Wakefield and John O’Leary present evidence to US congress suggesting link between MMR and autism.

2000 — Another large scale study suggests benefits of MMR vastly outweigh risks.

2001 — BMJ study using GP Research Database suggests no link between MMR and autism.

2001 — Andrew Wakefield resigns from the Royal Free and University College Medical School

2002 — John O’Leary and colleagues suggest measles are present in guts of patients with austim in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Pathology: Molecular pathology. Scientists question methods and later a US legal case says methods unreliable.

2002-2004 — A large number of scientific studies find no link between MMR and autism including research published in British Medical Journal, New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics and Lancet

2004 — 10 co-authors on the 1998 Wakefield Lancet paper issue a retraction and editor of the Lancet says, with hindsight, they shouldn’t have published the paper.

2004-2005 — Uptake of MMR vaccine falls to 81%.

2005 — Large scale Japanese study shows MMR not linked to autism; Japan withdrew MMR and cases of autism continue to increase.

2005-2006 Uptake of MMR vaccine at 84%.

2006 April – 13 year old boy becomes the first person in the UK to die from measles in 14 years.

2006 June – It is announced that Andrew Wakefield is to face the General Medical Council over charges of professional misconduct.

2007 – Uptake of MMR vaccine increased to 85%. Department of Health would like the vaccine uptake to rise to 95% — a level that would give herd immunity.

July 2007 – GMC starts hearings against Wakefield and two of his colleagues.

January 2010 – GMC issues preliminary verdicts and finds Wakefield to have been ‘irresponsible’ in conducting unnecessary and invasive tests on children. The Lancet retracts Wakefield’s original paper a couple of days later.

May 2010 – Wakefield is found guilty of serious professional misconduct and is struck off the medical register.

More on Sciblogs from Grant Jacobs

Reynolds understood the power of the web Peter Griffin May 24


I was shocked and saddened to learn this morning (via Twitter) that internet commentator and developer and relentless advocate of open access to information Paul Reynolds died on Sunday of leukaemia.

reynoldsNo one, not even Paul it seems knew he was ill. Eloquent tributes are flowing around the web dispersed via social networks, something Paul would no doubt consider highly appropriate. Sciblogs readers may know Paul from Radio New Zealand, where he has been interviewed over the years talking about technology, where the internet is going and how information is managed and mangled on the web. Paul was onto the internet very early, saw its potential quickly and was always a step ahead of everyone else in suggesting where it was going – I first heard of the semantic web from Paul.

Through his company McGovern Online he assisted numerous organisations, from the National Library to art galleries, government departments and the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, get their heads around opening up information online and engaging in online communities.

I got to know Paul when I was a tech commentator on TVNZ’s Breakfast show – I did the new gadget slots while Paul tackled the weighty issues of where all this technology is taking us. I last spoke to him a few weeks ago in Auckland before he joined a panel discussion on Russell Brown’s Media7 show to talk about the internet and attempts to regulate it to stop piracy.

But what I’ll really remember Paul for are the engaging, wide-ranging discussions he led at Foo Camp, the annual meeting of tech, science and creative sector people. The last session we were in together in February was about citizen science and how to use the internet to get the public more engaged in the type of science going on in New Zealand – his message to me when I expressed my frustration that the media often poorly covers science was “don’t try and move the mountain, go around it” – he clearly saw the web, social media and citizen science as compelling channels to get science out to the public.

Paul was also deeply involved in the local Creative Commons movement in New Zealand and his input there will be sorely missed. So long Paul and thanks for all the insights… will have a wee dram to salute you.

How big is Venter’s synthetic breakthrough? Peter Griffin May 21


Whenever geneticist Dr Craig Venter outlines new research he is involved in the whole world listens.

Source: Science

Source: Science

That’s because Venter was involved in one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the last 20 years – the sequencing of the human genome. The implications of that advance for the field of genetics has been huge and helped pave the way for the $1000 genome which scientists claim they are close to cracking.

Since working on the Human Genome Project, Venter’s real driving interest has been in the area of synethetic biology. Why? Well, Venter sees synthetically generated cells as the key to engineering our way out of some of the big problems facing the world – such as climate change and our existing reliance on fossil fuels. As Venter told New Scientist in 2007:

Over the next 20 years, synthetic genomics is going to become the standard for making anything. The chemical industry will depend on it. Hopefully, a large part of the energy industry will depend on it. We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make.

Not surprising then that the big science story of the week is that Venter and colleagues have published a paper in Science detailing how they synthesized an entire bacterial genome and used it to take over a cell. The paper itself is barely readable for the layperson, given its complexity and even the images that accompanied the paper don’t add much for the average reader. But media coverage from the likes of the New York Times add useful context:

Dr. Venter’s aim is to achieve total control over a bacterium’s genome, first by synthesizing its DNA in a laboratory and then by designing a new genome stripped of many natural functions and equipped with new genes that govern production of useful chemicals.He took a first step toward this goal three years ago in showing that the natural DNA from one bacterium could be inserted into another and would take over the host cell’s operation. Last year his team synthesized a piece of DNA with 1,080,000 bases, the chemical units of which DNA is composed. In a final step, a team led by Daniel G. Gibson, Hamilton O. Smith and J. Craig Venter report in Thursday’s Science that the synthetic DNA takes over a bacterial cell just as the natural DNA did, making the cell generate the proteins specified by the new DNA’s genetic information in preference to those of its own genome.

So just how significant is this? Many scientists consider the latest development a landmark moment in science (see comments from scientists below). But as BBC Newsnight’s science editor Susan Watts points out, such is the hype that often surrounds Venter’s work, it is hard to know just how close to true synthetic life we actually are.

Dr Venter has been promising this for years, and now that he has succeeded we’ll be hearing a lot about how he has “created life in the lab”. It’s not quite that – not yet – but it’s close. Dr Venter and his team built “Synthia”, as they’ve named their new life form, from snippets of DNA called “cassettes”. But he is still relying on a naturally-occurring microbe to act as a host – with its own DNA stripped out. Don’t misunderstand me. What Dr Venter has done is incredible science. I’ve already heard it described as Nobel prize-winning, “landmark”, work. But there is always an element of razzmatazz surrounding Dr Venter’s research that makes it harder to sift fact from hype.

On the other hand you don’t have to go far to read reports of the dissenting voices who are worried that Venter is taking us down a dark and rocky path – one which will deliver us to an ethical dilemma as we gain the power to engineer life itself.

Meanwhile, here’s how scientists in the UK greeted the news. Quotes courtesy of the Science Media Centre in London:

Professor Dek Woolfson, University of Bristol and Principal Investigator, BBSRC Synthetic Components Network, says:

’Craig Venter’s step forward is to show that genomes — the stuff that programmes natural cells and organisms — can be made chemically in the lab and then transplanted and ‘booted up’ in another cellular host. This could eventually allow the genes for the synthesis of drugs or biofuels to be smuggled into bacterial or yeast cells, which could then be made to produce these useful products. This is one end of synthetic biology that might be termed ‘genome engineering’.

’Other groups, including those in the UK, are working at understanding how we might design and engineer biological systems at the more-basic molecular level; e.g., can we make miniature motors out of proteins and other molecules from first principles? This is a very exciting time for the emerging field of Synthetic Biology, and the UK has a key role to play in it.

’The aim of Synthetic Biology is to design and engineer new biological building blocks that allow the reliable and predictable construction of biological or biologically inspired systems. In turn, these systems could be used to produce new biomaterials, biofuels, or drugs more cheaply, efficiently and in environmentally friendly ways.’

Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), said:

’This latest announcement demonstrates the crucial role that engineering, chemistry, physics and maths play in driving forward developments in synthetic biology and that the range of UK research activities that we are supporting in this area will contribute to the advancement of this new technology.

’In synthetic biology we have a whole set of new possibilities to move from hypothesis to reality in areas as diverse as disease diagnosis, vaccines, fuel production or neutralising contaminants such as oil spills.

’EPSRC, together with BBSRC, have been mindful of the concerns that the public may have over what is a relatively new area of research, and from the outset have encouraged our researchers in the synthetic biology networks to actively consider the ethics of their work and discuss it with the public.’

Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics and Uehiro Centre Director, University of Oxford, said:

’Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially as Wilmut did or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally. Creating life from the ground up using basic building blocks. At the moment it is basic bacteria just capable of replicating. This is a step towards something much more controversial: creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved. The potential is in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication. But the risks are also unparalleled. We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm.’

Dr. Gos Micklem, Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge, said:

“This is undoubtedly a landmark paper. The group has been building towards this step and, from their earlier published work, are leaders at synthesising and re-assembling large segments of DNA. There is already a wealth of simple, cheap, powerful and mature techniques for genetically engineering a range of organisms. Therefore, for the time being, this approach is unlikely to supplant existing methods for genetic engineering. DNA synthesis is rapidly becoming cheaper and so this could change, but not soon.

“The technique could potentially come into its own if one wanted to introduce a large number of changes into an existing genome. However making a system that works predictably after introducing a large number of changes is one of the design challenges of the young field of synthetic biology: in the general case it is a challenge that is unlikely to be solved soon.”

Professor Paul Freemont, Co-Director of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, said:

’The paper published in Science today by Craig Venter and colleagues is a landmark study that represents a major advance in synthetic biology. Venter and colleagues have for the first time demonstrated that a single genome of around 1 million base pairs can be chemically synthesised and assembled correctly and transplanted into a recipient cell. The step change advance, which has alluded them in previous publications, is that they have now demonstrated that the transplanted synthetic DNA can be ‘booted up’ to operate the functions of the new recipient cell in terms of replication and growth. Although the recipient cell is not man-made but is another natural cell, what Venter’s team have shown is that after transplantation and multiple cell divisions the recipient cell take son the characteristics or phenotype of the newly transplanted genome. (This is like taking a Mac computer operating systems and installing it onto a PC and the PC becoming a Mac computer.)

’This is a remarkable advance as it now provides a ‘proof of concept’ that we can chemically synthesise and assemble full genomes and transplant them into recipient cells, which after selection contain only the synthetic genome, and after rounds of cell division become a new and one might argue synthetic cell. The applications of this enabling technology are enormous and one might argue this is a key step in the industrialisation of synthetic biology leading to a new era of biotechnology.

’Of course one also needs to be cautious, as it is not clear if this approach will work for larger and more complex genomes or for transplantation in different bacterial cells. However, this is a landmark step in our abilities to manufacture man-made cells for man-made purposes.’

Additional information from Professor Freemont:

In detail the paper describes the chemical synthesis and assembly of the 1.08Mbp genome of Mycoplasmamycoides. This organism is a small bacteria and lives as a parasite in cattle and goats. Mycoplasma lack cell walls, have no discernable shape and are the smallest (0.1 µM) known free-living life forms and are most likely to have evolved from Gram-positive bacteria. They are present in both animal and plant kingdoms and act as colonisers. The choice of Mycoplasma by the Venter group for genome synthesis and transplantation is based on the small size of the genome and for the mycoides species has a reasonably fast growth rate. The difficulties they report in terms of getting the synthetic genome booted up were due to a single base pair mutation in an essential gene (dnaA) which they noted after several attempts. Correcting this mutation allowed the synthetic genome to work properly, although its not clear how the mutation occurred — whether in the synthesis or assembly step. The transplantation process involves using an antibiotic selection process where the newly transplanted genomes infer resistance to the transplanted cell to live in the presence of a lethal antibiotic.

Will mining vanquish our rare frogs? Peter Griffin May 20


The Zoological Society of London has come out with a hard-hitting statement on the Government’s plans to mine parts of the conservation estate, concerned in particular at what mining might mean for the rare Archey’s frog and Hochstetter’s frog.

It seems the Archey’s frog is at the top of the ZSL’s EDGE of Existence amphibian list, “making it the most distinct and globally endangered amphibian on the planet”. It is regarded as a “living fossil” according to ZSL, as it is largely indistinguishable from frogs that “walked amongst the dinosaurs 150 million years ago”. The frogs are found in conservation areas in the North Island.

Now, you may be thinking the ZSL is getting a little ahead of itself campaigning from across the world against the mining proposal before the government has even done any surveying or examined in any depth the potential environmental impact of mining areas that are currently conservation land. But the ZLS is pretty passionate about frogs.

This from the release issued  a short while ago in London:

’In the year when reducing biodiversity loss is high on the political agenda, it is inconceivable to think that we’d put the nail in the coffin of some of our rarest and most extraordinary frog species,’ say Helen Meredith, EDGE of Existence amphibian conservation projects coordinator at ZSL.

At least one local frog expert agrees:

Dr Phil Bishop, leader of the University of Otago’s frog research says ’Only four species of frog survive in New Zealand, and this proposed mining activity could cause the extinction of one of New Zealand’s native amphibians, and a severe decline in another – a devastating blow to global amphibian conservation.’

We’ve hear a lot about the opposition to mining the conservation estate but little specific about the most at-risk flora and fauna. The frogs certainly seem to rank high on the list of species that could be adversely affected.  And in case you haven’t come across Archey the frog, here are some pictures of them courtesy of the ZSL…

credit: Andrew Nelson

credit: Andrew Nelson

credit: Phil Bishop

credit: Phil Bishop

credit: Phil Bishop

credit: Phil Bishop

A step backwards for unmetered broadband Peter Griffin May 20


Looking forward to the type of uncapped data plans broadband users in Asia, the US and Europe enjoy? Think again.

Prospects for such flat-rate pricing for broadband took a giant leap backwards this week with Telecom’s decision to can its $69.95 per month Big Time plan.

I just received this email from Telecom spokeslady Emma Kate Greer:

As you have may have read this morning Telecom’s Big Time broadband plan has been removed from our broadband line-up. I remember you were a Go Large customer — did you also give Big Time a go?

As you know Telecom has been the only ISP in NZ to provide a broadband plan that has no set monthly data allowance – we have made successive attempts to give customers this innovation, but unfortunately it is simply proving unviable.

We are conscious we have a range of customers who enjoy using this plan, but managing the traffic of an extreme minority has made the plan increasingly hard to manage and keep in market. We are seeing some customers using astounding amounts of internet data – in the terabytes each month which is equivalent to downloading more than 1000 movies.

We try to manage certain types of activity on the plan to ensure availability of bandwidth, but over the past few months we have seen an increasing use of technology that is specifically designed to circumvent traffic management.

We have been making updates to our technology to keep up with these software programmes, but the resource and work needed to continually do that has also become untenable.

We recognise it was relatively brave to launch this plan and certainly we’ve been the only ISP to try a plan with no monthly data cap. We wanted to give our customers this option. It is not possible to achieve innovation without trying new things and sometimes those things won’t come off.

Customers using the Big Time plan will be communicated with in the coming months and given advanced notice before we need to move them to another option. We will look at their average data usage and recommend the best option for them.

Naturally we will also make sure customers are completely free to move to other ISPs if they chose to.

Those with high data use may suit the Pro plan. We are adjusting the price of overage on our Pro plan (monthly plan price of $79.95) which has the largest monthly data allowance (40GB) — previously it was $20 per Gigabyte (GB) and now it is $2 per GB (or part thereof).

We appreciate that there will be a small number of extreme users who will not be happy with this outcome (and of course neither are we) but we hope that one of our other broadband plans may suit them.

Bandwidth vampires to blame?

I was a Go Large customer but I ditched that plan due to the unsatisfactory speeds I was getting. I moved to an Orcon naked DSL plan (broadband only, no phone) and have been very impressed with the transfer speeds and reliability of service.

As Chris Keall points out, the irony here is that Telecom’s Australian arm AAPT has bene making inroads in the broadband market (finally) with an uncapped data plan.

Telecom set itself up as a target for heavy broadband users with the launch of frist Go Large, then Big Time so it really should have foreseen this and had a plan to cope with the traffic management issues. Ultimately, the plan has failed because it is too expensive from a bandwidth point of view and too complicated to manage individual users without having a major impact on performance for a large number of customers. But if we had cheaper international connectivity, more bandwidth would be available at a lower price and such traffic management techniques wouldn’t be as necessary.

Here’s hoping the Pacific Fibre backers are getting some interest in their plan for a second trans-Pacific fibre cable… whether we get unlimited broadband plans in future may hinge on whether they succeed or not…

NZ scientists fire up $3.4 million mass spectrometer Peter Griffin May 19


Scientists at the Crown Research Institute GNS Science are this morning showing media through its Lower Hutt Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory where a new accelerator mass spectrometer has been installed.

Caption:  Scientists Johannes Kaiser (left) and Albert Zondervan with the new $3.4 million accelerator mass spectrometry facility at GNS Science's National Isotope Centre in Lower Hutt. It is the only facility of its type in the Southern Hemisphere and its applications include climate resaearch, archaeology, oceanography, geology, earthquake and volcano research, marine biology, and dating antiquities. Photo - Margaret Low, GNS Science

Caption: Scientists Johannes Kaiser (left) and Albert Zondervan with the new $3.4 million accelerator mass spectrometry facility at GNS Science's National Isotope Centre in Lower Hutt. Photo - Margaret Low, GNS Science

What will this expensive gadget, which represents the largest single investment in equipment since GNS became a CRI in 1992, actually do?

Well, GNS is the go-to place in the country for radiocarbon dating, which uses a carbon radioisotope (carbon-14) to date material up to around 50,000 years old. This is generally used for carbon-dating organic material like sediments, wood, bones and plant matter.

The really interesting stories to do with radiocarbon dating emerge when the technique is used to date ancient relics that are uncovered, particularly our distant human ancestors.  But the impetus behind the upgrade from the existing aging particle accelerator is climate science research. Part of the overall effort underway in New Zealand to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is research to better understand how carbon influences soil and the exchange of carbon between soil and the atmosphere.

Here’s a Q&A on radiocarbon dating from GNS Science:

1. In very simple terms, how does an accelerator mass spectrometer work?

It first converts sample atoms into a stream of ions. Using static electric and magnetic fields, it then accelerates, deflects, focuses and separates individual charged ions on the basis of their mass. It then measures the intensity of each separated beam to arrive at an abundance ratio. Further ‘offline’ analysis is needed to convert this data into environmental parameters such as a calendar year.

2. How many radiocarbon laboratories are there in the world?

There are about 50 radiocarbon dating laboratories in the world, with 28 having accelerator mass spectrometry facilities. The new accelerator mass spectrometer is an integral part of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, which is recognised as part of the worldwide accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) laboratory network.

3. How many laboratories operate the same type of compact accelerator?

Ten other laboratories use the same type and size of accelerator mass spectrometer for radiocarbon measurements. However, the new facility at GNS Science is unique worldwide because it has been modified to measure the isotopes of beryllium-10 and aluminium-26 in addition to carbon-14. This versatility ensures it will contribute to a wide range of science applications in New Zealand.

4. What are the main advantages of the new facility?

High reliability, high precision, and low operating costs. It represents significant gains in efficiency and gives New Zealand a modern accelerator mass spectrometry facility that ranks among the best in the world.

5. What is the life expectancy of this new facility?

A minimum of 15 years.

6. How compact is the new facility compared to the one it has replaced?

The new facility occupies about 25 percent of the floor area of the one it replaces. The (old) Van de Graaff accelerator mass spectrometer is from a much earlier era and was imported from Australia in the early 1980s. It has been a worthy workhorse for New Zealand science and has dated about 50,000 samples during the past three decades.

7. How easy is the new facility to operate and can it work around the clock?

The modern operator system incorporates several layers of automation. Once a batch of 40 samples has been started and the optimal parameters set, the system can proceed unattended.

8. How many staff are needed to operate the new AMS facility?

Two full-time staff.

9. What materials can you date with radiocarbon dating?

Anything that once lived and containing carbon up to about 50,000 years old. This includes wood, leather, bone, paper, seawater, gases, ice cores, pollen, pottery, coral, seeds, charcoal, blood residues, human remains, sediment, soil, shell, textiles, plant and animal tissue, insect remains, cave paintings, and natural resins. The Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory also plays a role in international radiocarbon calibration programmes.

10. What is the point of difference of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory?

The new AMS system places the Laboratory in the top bracket of such facilities worldwide. Its high precision and reliability will enable GNS Science to provide an improved level of service to clients, particularly those who have special requirements such as very high precision, express service, or very small sample size — less than 0.0005g of carbon.

11. How much does it cost to have a sample dated?

The standard charge is $NZ820. This price reflects the complexity of the dating process, the expertise of the scientists and technicians, and the high-end equipment involved. This price is internationally competitive.

12. How long does it take to produce a date for a client?

It usually takes eight weeks from the time a sample is received. This can be shortened by several weeks if a client requests an urgent turnaround. An extra fee applies to express handling of samples.

13. What is the accuracy of AMS radiocarbon dating?

Usually plus or minus 35 years. With some samples, GNS Science can offer an enhanced accuracy service which delivers plus or minus 20 years.

14. What are the practical applications of carbon-14 dating?

Applications include dating antiquities, atmospheric studies, archaeology, climate research, oceanography, geology, earthquake and volcano research, marine biology and carbon dynamics.

15. Can you give examples of age-dating and tracing assignments the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory undertakes?

Earthquakes: Work with geologists to age-date pre-historic ruptures on major New Zealand faults including the Wellington Fault, the Alpine Fault, and the Wairarapa Fault to elucidate past fault behaviour and possible future earthquake threat. Landslides: Age-date significant pre-historic landslides in New Zealand to elucidate possible future threat from this hazard.

Tsunami: Age-date pre-historic tsunami deposits on New Zealand’s coastline to elucidate size and frequency of these events and possible future threat.

Volcanoes: Age-date pre-historic eruptions from volcanoes in Auckland and the central North Island to elucidate past behaviour and possible future threat.

Archaeology: Work with archaeologists in numerous countries in the study of pre-historic societies and early human settlement.

Antiquities: Age-date antiquities and detect fakes for museums and art dealers internationally.

Marine biology: Help in the study of life cycles of commercial fish species in New Zealand to aid fisheries management.

Oceanography: Help with research on circulation pathways and quantity of inorganic carbon in Southern Hemisphere oceans to monitor changes in ocean chemistry.

Atmosphere: Help with research on atmospheric circulation in the Southern Hemisphere. Work with NIWA to maintain a record of carbon-14 concentration in the atmosphere in the Southern Hemisphere that dates back to the early 1950s. Environment & climate research: Trace movement of carbon atoms through the environment to aid carbon accounting and thus enable the government and private sector to make informed decisions on how best to respond to the impact of, and adaptation to, climate change.

Interphone: How not to communicate science Peter Griffin May 18

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The 10 year long, 20 million euro Interphone study into brain cancer and mobile phone use has finally been published, but the way its launch was handled led to contradictory headlines and confusion among journalists trying to communicate its important findings.

For the record, Interphone which is the responsibility of the World Health Organisation, and involved surveying 13,000 people in 13 countries including New Zealand, has found that: “an increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data. However, observations at the highest level of cumulative call time and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited.”

Click here to listen to New Zealand scientists who contributed to Interphone explaining its findings.

So basically, using cellphones is relatively safe, but because we are using them for longer periods of time that when the study took place, we need to do some more studies, particularly in kids, who may be more susceptible to electromagnetic radiation when their brains are still developing.

Interphone threw up a few strange things – for instance, it found a lower odds ratio for brain tumors relative to regular mobile phone use, something researchers have put down to “participation bias or other methodological limitations”. Long before its launch, Interphone was criticised for its methodology and bickering among scientists involved repeatedly delayed its findings being made public.


A flurry of inaccurate stories based on leaks last October in the UK media suggested Interphone would be released in December. But December slipped by without any official word from the Paris-based International Agency for Research on Cancer. As someone interested in making sure the New Zealand media had a decent heads-up on Interphone, I made early attempts to make sure we knew when the study was coming. But getting information out of IARC was extremely difficult, even communicating with them was challenging.

Finally a couple of weeks ago we heard Interphone was about to be published. Then the WHO made the unwise decision of releasing an embargoed press release with a link to the research about a week prior to the embargo time on the research. This release apparently only went to researchers involved in Interphone, but that involved a lot of people and the link to the research was not protected by a log-in. After all the leaks, controversy and inaccurate reporting, expecting an embargo to be respected on a global scale was asking for too much, as Embargo Watch points out. The LA Times has more on the embargo break here.

The result was that Intephone, the results of which were embargoed to 1.30am Paris time on May 18th, leaked like a sieve on Sunday (UK time) with stories based on snatches of information appearing in The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and the Scotsman. By late Sunday night, Reuters and AFP were running the Interphone results and the number of news organisations breaking the embargo grew.

IARC buries its head in the sand

Nevertheless, IARC refused to lift the embargo. Journalists who wanted to cover the story properly were then in the awkward position of seeing CNN, AFP, Reuters and many other media organisations running the Interphone study, and deciding whether they should follow suit and break the still existing embargo. All of that ended around midnight last night when the WHO belatedly decided that the horse had well and truly bolted and lifted the embargo on Interphone. As a result, some New Zealand media outlets ran the story last night and this morning while others, mindful of the embargo decided to hold off, unaware that the embargo would be lifted at midnight. Those who respectfully waited missed out on running the story at the same time as everyone else.

This is not a good way to communicate such a major piece of research and I hope the WHO learns some valuable lessons from this. Releasing the information under embargo nearly a week before the embargo date was ill-advised, especially as there was a weekend in the intervening period. Sunday papers are notorious for breaking embargoes and it was Sundays who led the charge here in jumping the gun. What eventuated were wildly varying headlines on the Interphone results. As an illustration of that, consider the following:

The Independent, May 18

The Independent, May 18


The Australian, May 18

The Australian, May 18

Sure, Interphone’s results aren’t straightforward – high-frequency users appear to be more susceptible to brain cancer, the study found but issued the caveat: “Biases and errors limit the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation”.

Nevertheless,  I think the WHO could have avoided some of the polarized coverage of the Interphone study if it had managed the communication of it more successfully.

It should have:

A: Limited release of embargoed material to 48 hours maximum.

B: Communicated more effectively earlier with media around the world about the timing of Interphone’s release.

C: Foregone publication in a peer-reviewed journal in favour of publishing it publicly to its website for all to see, still peer-reviewed but not tied to any particular publishing schedule.

D: Been far more decisive in lifting the embargo once Interphone was in the public domain.

E: Answered phones/emails at WHO and at IARC in Paris!

Such an important, expensive and globally significant study deserved better treatment.

Crazy science letter of the week part 8 Peter Griffin May 13


This one contains so many inaccuracies, exaggerations and irrational thoughts its clear someone isn’t thinking straight in the deep south…

From  The Press, May 11th

Source: The Press

Source: The Press

Science in the budget: NZ vs Aussie Peter Griffin May 12

1 Comment

As has been widely reported over the last couple of days, the Government’s Budget for 2010 – 11 will include $321 million in new funding science and R&D initiatives over the next four years, with $96 million consisting of re-prioritised funding.

budget_dreamstime_114638This was pre-announced yesterday and made this year’s budget particularly more sciency than most years in recent history.What did scientists make of it? Mixed views really, some of which has been reflected in Sciblogger Grant Jacobs’ post.

Here are a couple of comments we rounded up at the Science Media Centre:

Associate Professor Jon Hickford, President of the New Zealand institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Research:

“The Prime Minister’s announcement is quite unprecedented and particularly pleasing given the current economic situation in NZ. The investment not only addresses many of the ongoing failings with the RS&T system, but also signals very clearly Government’s belief that investment in RS&T is a key to creating future economic wealth. It is most pleasing to see the major investment in leveraging more R&D in businesses that are already successful and this should be of great benefit to all those businesses that export goods and services that are specifically allied to New Zealand’s primary sector.

“It is also very pleasing to see recognition of the need to create a better career structure in science, such that young talent stays in New Zealand and adds to the economic well-being of the country. While some comments have emerged that this is about Government “trying to pick winners”, it needs to be remembered that this has been the case for the last 20-odd years of highly competitive funding regimes. Governments’ certainly try to pick winners in many other countries and supporting R&D in industry is certainly not unprecedented internationally. It also needs to be remembered that this Government moved early in the piece to invest a lot more in the Marsden fund, a fund which is focussed exclusively on “blue-skies” research. While there is also some consternation about the reallocation of existing funding, the proposed shift in funding priority seems to be based on the premise that RS&T needs to find solutions and not just identify problems.”

Dr Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago:

“This announcement from the government is heartening news for science. The government is giving a vote of confidence to the science sector indicating that it believes that research is important for our economy, society and education and needs to be funded even in poor economic times. Even more important is the funding for the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships which fills a gap in the New Zealand funding system and will be important in attracting talented scientists back to New Zealand. These fellowships will enable early career researchers to properly establish their careers increasing their chances of being successful and useful New Zealand scientists.”

Last year we had relatively modest improvements for science, while the Australian budget had major funding boosts for science, including an increase in the R&D tax credit and funding for alternative energy efforts. So how did Australian science fare in this year’s budget announced yesterday? As Life Scientist points out, not very well, though a lot of funding committed lasy year is working through the system. Australia’s budget this year was more like ours was last year – all about fiscal constraint.

Here’s what Australian scientists had to say about it (a round-up courtesy of the Australian Science Media Centre):

Professor Linda Kristjanson is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research & Development at Curtin University

’The 2010-11 budget contained no major news for higher education and research, and instead affirmed the Government’s commitment to initiatives currently underway – Education Investment Fund, Super Science, Excellence in Research Australia and related funding schemes. The commitment to space science and astronomy is welcomed and will continue to progress our preparation and competitiveness for the Square Kilometre Array project. Investment in the CRC program is also encouraging. Commitments to environmental innovations in the area of green energy and the focus on primary health care are needed and universities such as Curtin, who are working directly in these areas will be able to engage with industry to ensure evidence based innovations are implemented’

Professor Suzanne Cory is President of the Australian Academy of Science

’A Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s International Research Collaboration will report later this year, and we hope the Government will respond with renewed funding for this crucial area, guided by whole of Government strategy. Currently, valuable programmes with long term international partners are in jeopardy, as forward planning cannot be undertaken.’

’We need a bold vision for the future of research in science, maths and engineering in Australia. This vision is essential for our country’s future. We welcome the Government’s decision to ensure that Hospitals will now receive essential research funding from the Commonwealth. However, it is a pity that there has been no rationalisation of funding to cover real research costs for Universities, CSIRO, Medical Research Institutes and Hospitals.’

Professor Bob Williamson is the Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science.

’In last year’s budget, there was a long overdue increase of about 25% in Australia’s research funding, particularly to the Universities, but this focussed on new buildings and large pieces of equipment. The Academy notes that we still need to attract and retain the best people in science to occupy the labs, run the experiments, and keep Australia at the forefront of world research. Some major initiatives, such as the ‘Australia Fellowships’ in medical research, come to an end this year’

Professor Garry Jennings is Director of the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute

’The broad emphasis on health is welcome and although it does not achieve health system reform some of the foundations are there.

“The deafening silence on health research funding in the budget raises the question of where and how innovation will occur. The new and better funded health system faces the future challenges of an aging community living with chronic disease, emerging global diseases and new technology. More money for the here and now is welcome but needs future proofing with research linked to clinical care across the health system and a workforce that is savvy to new developments. ’

Professor Mike Daube is President of the Public Health Association of Australian (PHAA) and Deputy Chair of the Preventative Health Taskforce

’For the first time, we have a comprehensive approach to reducing our massive toll of preventable ill health and death, with substantial commitments in the Budget to funding for prevention’.

’The Government’s response to the Prevention Taskforce Report demonstrates a strong commitment to action on tobacco, obesity and alcohol problems, with a special focus on binge drinking.’

’Today’s announcements confirm that the Australian Government will lead the world in tobacco control, through a the 25% tax increase combined with public education, plain packaging and a range of other measures and a special focus on disadvantaged groups who continue to smoke at high levels. This will help to prevent literally hundreds of thousands of deaths.

“The allocation of $50m for action on alcohol, including funds to offer alternatives for sports sponsored by alcohol is also an important development, allied to strong public education programs on both alcohol and obesity. We also welcome the allocation of $54m to a National Health Survey as well as the substantial funding promised through COAG.’

’Of course there are other measures we would like to see accepted — such as alcohol tax reform, and legislated controls on alcohol and junk food promotion, but this is a very encouraging start, and we note that the Government has not closed the door on some of the tough measures proposed in the Taskforce Report.’

’Even in difficult economic times, this gives us a strong basis on which to build. We will continue to press for further action, including an increase in the percentage of health expenditure for prevention from the current 2%, but today’s announcements clearly mark the start of a new era in prevention.’

Michael Moore is CEO of the Public Health Association of Australian

’We are pleased to see the emphasis on prevention continue, through action ranging from the new Australian National Preventive Health Agency, a new National Health Survey, delivery of the COAG funding, support for community programs, support for primary care (including through the new Medicare Locals) and a significantly increased commitment to participation in sport’.

’The Budget’s primary healthcare package also contains a number of further measures that are designed to reduce the levels of preventable illness and disease in the Australian community.

“It will also be important to ensure that these are complemented by further measures to reduce the health inequities in our society, investment in areas such as mental health and oral health, and action beyond the health portfolio’.

Professor Roger Jones is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University

On Climate Change

’Under climate change most of the measures have already been announced. With the CPRS delayed, expenditure is also delayed and the concentration will be on the rollout of energy efficiency programs. Much of the climate change budget is defensive, with inspections for the insulation and solar hot water programs and a redesign of the green loans scheme. Adaptation is to be rolled out to a whole of government scale. There are new measures for overseas funding for adaptation in vulnerable countries, including to the Least Developed Countries Fund under the UNFCCC. The focus is on small island states in the Pacific and Caribbean. Already funded, a further focus will be on developing international policy links prior to 2012, continuing the negotiations from Copenhagen, and continuing to inform policy development in Australia.

On the Environment

’$81.3 million is to saved over four years by reducing duplication, mostly through reductions in funding to the National Heritage Trust with lesser reductions in Landcare. This funding is to be redirected. This is a cut of about 5%. Funding will be provided to streamlining environmental information particularly in the Bureau of Meteorology. Significant funds are being removed from the National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative and National Urban Water and Desalination Plan, due to stated ’lower than expected demand’. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority received a small boost for their implementation plan.

Science and research

“There was very little in terms of new programs that had not already been announced. A large policy program in ANU is being funded but had been announced previously.”

“Overall, this is a very safe budget. One disappointment is that significant funding being made available for training for sustainable growth is restricted to sustainable economic growth. The Green Jobs program is very small. I would prefer to see more environmental measures being rolled into the workforce and skills generally than having a small, green ghetto.’

Government goes to dark side for science Peter Griffin May 11


The Government announced something to the tune of $234 million in new funding for science and R&D initiatives this morning, initiatives that will be included in the Budget on May 20.

Businesses now have no excuse not to show some interest in R&D – there’ll even be a national network of commercialisation centres to help them translate their ideas into money-making ventures.

The Government also showed its taste for classic prog-rock reverting to Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover for inspiration for its science and innovation strategy booklet. Check out the resulting artwork:

govt science

And the Floyd…


I wonder if it was the tune to Money, Us & Them or Brain Damage they had in mind?

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