Archive October 2010

Aussie support for GM slips slightly Peter Griffin Oct 26

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As the latest study on the New Zealand public’s perception of science is released, a similar study across the Tasman focusing more narrowly on biotech has identified some similar trends.

The survey of 1000 people from across Australia commissioned by the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research shows support for biotechnology techniques like genetic modification and stem cell treatments remains high overall, but has slipped since 2007.

GM food continues to be one of the least well supported biotechnologies, according to the study.  While the Australian public perceive the benefits (70%) to outweigh the risks (48%), this is a drop from 2007 in benefits (77%) and risks (54%), yet still much higher than the 2005 figure of perceived benefits (64%) but lower than the 2005 figure of perceived risk (71%).

So over five years it seems as though Australians have become more comfortable with the risks GM technologies pose, but more sceptical of the benefits they potentially offer. Or as the report sums up:

Despite some shift in opinion about genetically modified food crops, there remains widespread acknowledgement of the potential benefits they may provide. Many recognised the value of a number of objectives of genetically modifying crops, particularly the need to adapt to the Australian climate by producing plants that are drought or salinity resistant. In addition, the majority of those who do not accept genetically modified food crops would be swayed by longterm tests (50% would change their minds), and labelling describing what component had been genetically modified, and why (45% would be influenced).

Australia is much further along that New Zealand when it comes to employing genetic modification in agriculture. Most states allow GM food crops to be grown – the main crops are canola and cotton (particularly New South Wales and Queensland). But a good deal of Aussies surveyed (43%) didn’t know if there were GM crops being grown in their own state. Only 49 per cent said they’d be in favour of GM crops being grown in their state.

The table below suggests there’s been a slip since the last survey in 2007 when it comes to using GM technologies in general. The report takes a stab at suggesting why this is. Take for instance, the use of GM crops to try and reduce environmental impacts:

The need to recycle water is likely to be less pressing in 2010 than in 2007, following severe rainfall deficiencies in 2006. In addition, items related to fuel use and alternative fuels are likely to be less pertinent than they were in 2007, when fuel prices were particularly high.

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Interestingly, there was a drop in the perceived value of using biotechnology to address climate change. The researchers note “this may be due in part to rising scepticism about anthropogenic climate change per se, rather than doubt in the ability of biotechnology to address the problem”.

That finding mirrors the research conducted here by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology into the public’s perceptions of science, which shows a dip in the perceived benefits of research into climate change relative to 2005 and 2002.

The New Zealand research doesn’t ask survey participants particularly about genetic modification (that would be pretty interesting) but you get a sense that recent GM-related scares, such as a biosecurity breach at a containment facility at Lincoln have had an impact on the public’s confidence in this type of research. A increased number of people felt there should be tight controls on what scientists are able to do and there was a slight increase in the number of people agreeing with the statement that “science is out of control these days” – though the majority disagree with that.

So, overall, the public is still strongly supportive of science, but a bit of fatigue and scepticism setting in in some areas, reflecting changing circumstances and changing perceptions we have seen reflected in the media, particularly on issues like climate change

Here’s the Australian report in full…

New Royal Society fellows named Peter Griffin Oct 06


It’s a science talkfest in Wellington at the moment as the Royal Society of New Zealand holds its AGM, its branches and Council meet and new fellows are welcomed into the fold.

This year is interesting because the make-up of fellows shows the broadening of the Royal Society to include the humanities – hence names like Bill Manhire appearing on the list of newly announced fellows. Here’s the list in full…

  • Professor Estate Khmaladze, School of Mathematics, Statistics and Operations Research, Victoria University of Wellington — he is regarded as a leading international expert in statistical models, making significant contributions in not only theoretical work, but also for statistical problems in finance, insurance and other related fields.
  • Associate Professor Andre Nies, Department of Computer Science, The University of Auckland — he is a world leader in computability theory and algorithmic information theory. In 2009 he received the NZ Mathematical Society Research Award ’for his special creativity and highly influential contributions in the area of mathematical logic’.
  • Professor David Lowe, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Waikato — he is an international leader in volcanic ash (tephra) research, using it as a tool to date past geological, climatic and archaeological events.
  • Professor Barry Scott, Institute of Molecular Biosciences, Massey University — currently heads the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at Massey University. He has made landmark contributions to rhizobium-legume symbiosis, and has produced several cutting edge advances in pasture grasses and fungal-plant interactions.
  • Professor Peter Derrick, Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University — he is world renowned as an innovative physical chemist, and the international leader in the development of instrumentation for mass spectrometry.
  • Dr Wendy Nelson, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) — she is a leading international expert on red algae seaweeds. Her work has resulted in the recognition of New Zealand as a centre of diversity on a global scale.
  • Professor William Manhire, International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington — he is an internationally distinguished poet, essayist and writer of short fiction. His critical, teaching and entrepreneurial skills have made him the foremost figure in developing New Zealand writing.
  • Professor Michael Clout, Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, The University of Auckland — is an internationally recognised conservation ecologist, providing scientific leadership in the ecology and conservation of native birds for many years, and in the behaviour and management of invasive mammals.
  • Professor John Hosking, Department of Computer Science, The University of Auckland — is an internationally renowned scientist in the field of software engineering with his work influencing a number of programming languages in the USA and New Zealand.
  • Professor Geoff Chase, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury – his innovative research focuses on model-based therapeutics, combining innovative engineering models and methods with physiology and clinical medicine to produce novel results for the health sector.
  • Dr Steven Fischer, Institute of Polynesian Languages, Auckland — he is widely known for his significant work in deciphering ancient script, in particular the decipherment of the Phaistos Disk from Crete, and the Rongo-rongo script on wooden tablets from Easter Island.
  • Professor Richie Poulton, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago — he leads one of the most successful and highly cited longitudinal studies of health and development in the world, being undertaken at the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit.  The study is following more than 1000 children born 1972-73 from birth to adulthood.

Graphene grabs physics Nobel Peter Griffin Oct 06

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The news through  from Stockholm this evening will be sweet music to the ears of researchers at Manchester University who welcome two more Nobel laureates into their midst – giving the university a staggering four Nobel Prize winners among its researchers.

Graphene layer

Graphene layer

UPDATE: Actually not that staggering as fellow Sciblogger Grant Jacobs pointed out to me – some universities have had or have large numbers of Nobel laureates on staff at any given time – Columbia University (58), the University of Cambridge (50), and the University of Chicago (43) according to this Wikipedia piece.

Some analysis on the Nobel win over at Researchblogging here and here.

Graphene boys

Andrei Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their research on graphene. Here’s a bit more about the scientists, both Russian by birth and one aged just 36!

Wikipedia has a good entry on graphene.

My colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London are busy rounding up reaction from the scientific community – here are some of the responses so far…

Dr Mark Miodownik, Head of the Materials Research Group, King’s College London, said:

“The award of this Nobel Prize will bring a smile to the face of every scientist because it shows you can still get a Nobel Prize by mucking about in a lab. Professors Geim and Novoselov happened across graphine, a new material that has the potential to revolutionise electronics, by discovering they could pluck atomic layers of carbon from the lead of a pencil using nothing more sophisticated than sticky tape. It turns out that anyone who has ever held a pencil could have discovered this amazing new material, but it was Professors Geim and Novoselov who took the time to look carefully. Bravo! Another reason to recognise that Bristish Science is a special culture, admired throughout the world for its originality and genius, and needs to be nurtured not cut by the government if they want to foster future technology and wealth in the UK.”

Professor Ton Peijs, Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, said:
“Graphene is a one-atom-thick planar sheet of carbon atoms that are densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice. It can be visualized as an atomic-scale chicken wire made of carbon atoms and their bonds.

“Applications are foreseen in areas of biomedical and gas sensors, transparent conducting materials for e.g. touch screens or flexible displays and as a reinforcement or conducting filler in composite materials. Similar to another important nanomaterial – carbon nanotubes – graphene is incredibly strong – around 200 times stronger than structural steel – but it may also form a stronger interaction when embedded in a polymer as the graphene sheet has considerably more contact area with the polymer material than the hollow carbon nanotubes.

“Graphene possesses a 2D platelet geometry compared to the 1D fibre geometry for nanotubes, which  may have some benefits in terms of improved mechanical properties such as toughness of plastics, while they may also be more effective in improving electrical, barrier and flame retardant properties of plastics.

“Congratulations to the Prize winners Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim, the 8th Dutchman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was born in Russia has the Dutch Nationality and worked before moving to Manchester at the Radbout University of Nijmegen.”

Dr Mark Baxendale, Reader in Nanotechnology at Queen Mary, University of London, said:
“Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon atoms bound in a hexagonal network. The bonds between the carbon atoms are the strongest in nature and the free electrons are highly mobile; consequently graphene promises ultimate mechanical and electronic properties. Geim and Novoselov pioneered the techniques for isolation of single graphene layers and demonstrated the unique attributes of graphene with some outstanding experimental work.”


Two scientists who discovered graphene at The University of Manchester have today been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Professor Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov have been awarded the highest accolade in the scientific world for their pioneering work with the world’s thinnest material.

Graphene was discovered at the University in 2004. It has rapidly become one of the hottest topics in materials science and solid-state physics.

It not only promises to revolutionise semiconductor, sensor, and display technology, but could also lead to breakthroughs in fundamental quantum physics research.

Dr Novoselov, 36, first worked with Professor Geim, 51, as a PhD-student in the Netherlands. He subsequently followed Geim to the United Kingdom. Both of them originally studied and began their careers as physicists in Russia.

The award of the Nobel Prize means there are currently four Nobel Laureates at The University of Manchester.

University of Manchester President and Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell said:
’This is fantastic news. We are delighted that Andre and Konstantin’s work on graphene has been recognised at the very highest level by the 2010 Nobel Prize Committee.

’This is a wonderful example of a fundamental discovery based on scientific curiosity with major practical, social and economic benefits for society.’

Sciblogs Year 1 – blogging up a science storm Peter Griffin Oct 01

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This science blog network was launched a year ago today and as the editor and co-founder of the network I want to take the chance to thank the hard-working contributors to Sciblogs.

September Sitemeter rankings

September Sitemeter rankings

I also want to thank you our readers. Many of you have engaged with us and each other in intelligent and robust debate on all sorts of issues.

It has been a prolific year for the 30 Scibloggers – 2935 posts on a wide range of topics (as evidenced by the 4126 tags Scibloggers have come up with to accompany their posts). I haven’t been able to count up the exact number of posts submitted to but it is in the dozens and shows Scibloggers are writing longer, well-referenced reflective pieces as well as short newsy posts.

Its heartening that we ended the year with our best ever month for traffic on the back of the Canterbury earthquake and some excellent analysis of it from our bloggers including newcomers Chris McDowall (Seeing Data) and Jesse Dykstra (Shaken Not Stirred).

The response of the Sciblogs contributors showed how science blogging can really add to analysis and commentary on a science-related issue when it is top of the news agenda. A good deal of Sciblogs content featured in the mainstream media last month, including a great time-lapse animation of earthquakes and aftershocks created by Chris and a post that was syndicated to the New Zealand Herald website and was the most read opinion piece on the Herald website on September 7th.

We also welcomed on a team of active bloggers from Genetics Otago.

Science blogs proliferate

Sciblogs arrived on the scene just at the stage, or so it seems to me, when science blogging began to take off – after and several other independent science blogs and mainstream media science blogs paved the way. The last few months have seen a real shake-up and reorganisation of science blogging efforts internationally. Much of this happened in the wake of the debacle that saw several well-read bloggers there decide to leave the platform in the wake of a move by Scienceblogs to host a blog by Pepsi’s scientists.  Now I’d have found some running scientific commentary on the issues faced by one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world fascinating, but it was plainly obvious that the blog would be problematic at best and was quickly ditched.

Since then, former contributors have started up elsewhere and new blogs have emerged – this is the most extensive directory of science blogs you are likely to find. This recent Guardian article shows there is also a healthy number of female scientists blogging.

What next?

We will be adding some more bloggers before the end of the year covering subjects like infectious diseases, psychology and archaeology. We also have an interesting publishing project in the pipeline which I’ll outline in depth in a future post.

In the meantime, we’d love your feedback on Sciblogs – what do you think of the content? Any technical features we need to add to the site? Remember also, we are always on the look-out for new bloggers, so drop us a line through the contact form if you’d like to explore the idea of joining the Sciblogs stable.

Thanks for reading and here’s to another year of quality New Zealand science blogging!

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