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Archive 2011

Suggestions for better science journalism Peter Griffin Dec 09

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The Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and media standards in the United Kingdom rolls on as a parade of media experts and journalists outline what’s wrong with the media and how the newsgathering process could be improved.

QC Brian Leveson

QC Brian Leveson

My colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London, which celebrates its 10th birthday next April, have used the Inquiry’s submissions process to point out what is wrong in particular with science journalism – and offer some useful suggestions on how the quality of coverage could be improved.

The UK has seen its fair share of dodgy science reporting – most notably the media’s coverage of the infamous Andrew Wakefield MMR-autism paper back in 1998, which actually threatened public health by causing a dip in vaccination rates. From the SMC submission:

Vaccination rates before the story stood at about 92% but dropped down to 80% after the scare, and it has taken close to 15 years to get over the damage. Cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008.

The real balance of this debate was completely lost because editors demanded that every comment from an expert be ‘balanced’ by a quote from Wakefield’s supporters. This issue has impacted on many other important science stories including climate change, GM crops, etc. where the fact that the weight of scientific evidence lies firmly on one side has often been obscured by an obsession with including ‘both sides’ of the story

The quest for balance often sees science stories go off the rails here too.

And reading through the 12-page submission penned by SMC UK director, Fiona Fox, it is uncanny just how much of it rings true for the New Zealand setting. We face the exact same barriers, including inaccurate headlines, lack of context on the significance of research findings, the aforementioned obsession with providing “balance” even when the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on one side, the influence of campaigning newspapers and mis-informed columnists and the way editors ignore the advice of their specialist reporters.

Actually, on that last issue, the UK and New Zealand diverge. We don’t have any specialist science reporters, which sort of compounds all the other problems listed in the SMC UK’s catalogue of media woes.

Take the case this week of Herald lifestyle columnist Shelley Bridgeman, who decided to delve into the world of conspiracy theories around chem trails but appears to have limited her research to conspiracy websites and Wikipedia articles. Only in the last paragraph does she refer to any expert opinion and then, only in passing:

Are chemtrails real? Some say they are but scientists claim they’re just regular vapour trails prolonged by certain atmospheric conditions.

This sort of vacuous pontificating may rack up plenty of reader comments (witness the savaging Bridgeman gets in the responses to her column), but it ultimately doesn’t do anything for the public’s understanding of science-related issues. Too often, columnists are let loose to issue their opinions with scant regard for facts. As the SMC UK puts it:

…we think it is healthy for opinionated columnists to challenge science and scientists in vigorous terms but we feel that they should not be free from the general expectations of truth telling and accuracy that govern the rest of journalism.

The UK, despite a steady stream of inaccurate and sensationalist science stories, remains a bastion of decent science reporting because the science round is, by and large, well resourced. As Fiona Fox notes:

Many newspapers employ dedicated science, health and environment reporters. And this is not just the broadsheets. The Sun has a health editor and an environment editor. The Mirror has a science editor as well as a health editor, and the Daily Mail has four dedicated specialists covering science, health and environment. These specialists are a dedicated and skilful group of journalists that the UK should be proud of.

In New Zealand, the trend it toward general reporters covering science and the idea of a “science editor” at a media organisation is a foreign concept. The Leveson Inquiry is a great opportunity for the British media to reflect on past performance and change its ways for the better. Here’s the full list of recommendations from the UK SMC when it comes to the treatment of science coverage:

SMC UK recommendations to Leveson Inquiry:

- New guidelines for the reporting of science — these guidelines would be drawn up by science journalists and used primarily by news editors and general reporters. They could also be used by a newly strengthened PCC to help adjudicate on complaints;
- Encourage newspapers to appoint at least one news editor and sub editor with a background in science reporting;
- Encourage newspapers to ensure that all science stories are checked by specialist science reporters and that news editors defer to their specialists’ judgment on the quality or otherwise of science stories;
- Headlines on important public health stories should be agreed by the relevant science reporter;
- Basic science training should be offered as a matter of course as part of the overall training of journalists;
- Scientists and organisations representing them who have been misrepresented should have a right to reply;
- Corrections of serious inaccuracies should be as prominent as the original story, including in how they are promoted (e.g. via social media);
- The PCC must immediately change the rule that states that only an individual scientist can complain about an inaccurate story. The scientific community must be able to make complaints about inaccurate articles which damage the public interest.

Dumped dogs not a good look for vivisectionists Peter Griffin Dec 06

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UPDATE: Campbell Live producer Kim Hurring has been in touch to say that the the original beagle piece run by TV3 was in the works well before the news out of Spain and that the fact the two stories broke on the same day was “purely coincidental”.

“We had had a team of about three people working on it for four days.. not to mention a lawyer going through it meticulously,” she said.

—–

It started with a tear jerking video that went viral on the web – footage of beagles who had never seen the outside of a research lab gingerly taking their first steps on grass.

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

The video, filmed in the US back in June and released by the Beagle Freedom Project suddenly took off again a couple of weeks ago after media interest in the release of dozens of beagles from a lab in Spain that was about to go out of business. The beagles ended up in Los Angeles, with the Beagle Freedom Project setting out to find foster homes for the cute, floppy-eared beagles, some of whom bear the scars of experiments.

The New Zealand media quickly took an interest – with the beagle video – despite being nearly six months old, featuring on the front of the Stuff website for part of an afternoon last week. Then Tv3 took an interest, looking for a local angle on the story that had racked up so many views elsewhere in the world.

Campbell Live’s Natasha Utting didn’t have to go far to get her homegrown news hook. The controversial Valley Animal Research Centre has featured in 3 News reports before. Now defunct, the centre operated for years as a centre for end-stage drug and food testing on animals. The anti-vivisectionists, fundamentally opposed to the testing, honed in on VARC, claiming mistreatment of and poor conditions for the test animals.

Animal testing has a fairly low profile in New Zealand though around 240,000 animals were used in testing last year. The bulk of those will be rats and mice and even fish, over which few tears seem to be shed. The beagles, chosen for their placid nature and lack of genetically-acquired health problems are a different story entirely – there’s no doubt the videos of them stepping into freedom for the first time are heartbreaking.

But animal testing is a necessarily unsentimental and clinical line of work that is incredibly important to modern medicine. No one is better at articulating its virtues than John Forman, the tireless force behind the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders. In many cases, the only hope of eradicating the types of disorders affecting the organisation’s members is advances in human medicine that rely in part on experiments with animals.

I think most of society, when pointed out how animal testing underpins the advances in medicine and even food testing that have improved the lives of millions, would accept the validity of its use. What people will not accept however, is animals being kept in poor conditions, being the subject of unethical treatment and being kept in captivity longer than they need to be.

Campbell Live reported last week that former VARC director Margaret Harkima was selling beagles on Trade Me without disclosing their past lives as animal testing subjects.

Last night it got worse. Footage of Natasha Utting and an anonymous dog breeder uncovering the dead bodies of dumped beagle pups and the skeleton of a dog, discarded amid piles of trash behind the VARC facility, was shocking.

The dialogue went something like this as the dog breeder opened a rancid trash bag:

Dog breeder: I’m pretty sure that’s a dog. A puppy.

Utting: Are they organs?

Dog breeder: To me that looks like puppies.

Utting and Campbell Live did a good job on this story, literally digging out an exclusive.

The animal testing may be over at VARC – a notebook discovered in the trash pile showed records of testing ending back in 2009. But dogs and cats, inexplicably remain at the facility and the careless disposal of the dead dogs, while not an animal ethics issue as such, doesn’t help the case of animal testers who claim to treat animals with respect and dignity.

Who knows why Margaret Harkima is holding onto these animals – she certainly wouldn’t explain her actions to Utting. While the beagles may live in conditions that meet the standards policed by animal welfare inspectors, the VARC facility is clearly run down. Harkima should take up the offer from animal welfare organisation Huha, and have the dogs taken off her hands and given to familes who can show them a good life.

Getting all weepy-eyed over the footage of the newly freed beagles is understandable, but is manipulation by the activists who campaign for the freedom of these dogs. The shoddy treatment of dogs in New Zealand that have been the subject of testing and the inappropriate disposal of animals is on the other hand an issue that taints animal testing and by association reflects badly on the researchers and scientists who operate ethically with society’s best interests at heart. The sooner VARC is totally wound down and the dogs placed with new owners the better.

The Beagle Freedom Project video that has attracted 2.8 million hits on Youtube

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One of our best science communicators awarded Peter Griffin Nov 11

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Let’s face it, finding scientists who can communicate their science effectively, understand the needs of the media and the public and are able to respond in times of crisis are rare.

Dr Mark Quigley and Dr Wayne Mapp at the NZAS Awards

Dr Mark Quigley and Dr Wayne Mapp at the NZAS Awards

It was pleasing then to last night see the University of Canterbury’s Dr Mark Quigley pick up the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Science Communicator’s Award at a ceremony in Wellington, attended by the Minister of Science and Innovation, Dr Wayne Mapp, and other various science leaders.

Dr Quigley is Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Canterbury and really became the science face of the earthquake recovery as he stepped up to provide as much information to the people of Canterbury and the country in general.

What made him so effective? As he explained himself last night, respect for and knowledge of his audience. Whether he is talking to a three year old about the earthquakes or a crowded town hall of traumatised Cantabrians, he knows how to connect to his audience and adapt his message for the best effect.

This is something that a lot of scientists fail to do – when faced with a media interview or public presentation, they continue to communicate as though they are talking to their scientific peers.

I judged the NZAS Science Communicator’s Award and while there were some excellent nominations this year, Dr Quigley’s stood out. Here’s what I wrote in my judges notes:

Judge’s comments:

From the morning of September 4th, 2010 when Cantabrians were awoken before dawn by the violent shaking of the ground beneath them, Dr Mark Quigley has been are the forefront of science communication around the forces at work beneath the Canterbury plains that caused the earthquake and its devastating follow-up on February 22.

Dr Quigley was on the front foot from the beginning, handling media interviews across print and broadcast and doing so in such an engaging way that he became the go-to scientist for independent commentary on the science-related aspects of the earthquakes.

Notably, Dr Quigley was instrumental in allaying fears generated by pseudoscientific earthquake predictions, appearing on Campbell Live and Close Up to address the claims of “Moon Man” Ken Ring.

Throughout, Dr Quigley has maintained a blog where he writes about his research, contributes extensively when called on by the media and participates in public lectures and presentations that have been greatly appreciated by the people of Canterbury. He is a scientist who understands the need for effective science communication and is willing to step up and engage with the media in the name of improving the public’s understanding of science. He is a great asset to natural hazards research in New Zealand and to science communication in general.

From Dr Quigley’s letter of nomination: Kevin Furlong, Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University comments:

“One of the reasons that Mark was seen as authoritative was that he combined his own understanding of the underlying processes with insight he gained from detailed discussions with people whose expertise complemented his, so that he had a holistic understanding of current best thinking about the earthquakes and thus was able to communicate that to a general audience.”

I didn’t realise until Mark produced some numbers last nigh,t just how much communication work has done in the last 15 months – including around 50 media appearances, 40-odd lectures here and internationally and tens of thousands of visitors to his blog.

His work on the science communication front has been hugely impressive and shows what can be achieved when scientists get on the front foot communication-wise when their area of expertise is in demand.

Other NZAS Medal winners

Marsden Medal – Professor Geoffrey Jameson, Director for the Centre for Structural Biology (chemistry and biophysics group), Massey University.

Research Medal – Associate Professor Alexei Drummond, Associate Professor of Bioinformatics, Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland

Shortland Medal – Professor Harjinder Singh, co-director of the Riddet Institute, Massey University.

More science in Election 2011 than you’d think Peter Griffin Nov 08

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If you hadn’t noticed, we are less than three week’s out from a general election and while economic and social issues are dominating the agenda, some of the most fundamental questions the political parties are attempting to answer are underpinned by science.

ElectionScienceAtomYou need go no further than the Science Media Centre Election 2011 Science Q&A to discover that. The survey put 10 questions to the political parties on major science-related issues – from our strategy on energy production to what the country’s approach to stimulating R&D should be.

So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of discussion on science-related issues so far during the election campaign. That really stems I think from the focus on environmental issues, elevated somewhat by the Green Party’s focus in this area with its policies aimed at water quality and green growth employment. It also stems from the growing realisation in business circles and among the public that we need to get our butts into gear if we are to up our game on the innovation front. We need more economic activity derived from science and technology and our science system isn’t particularly well set up to deliver it – yet.

This election, environmental issues and the innovation challenge are really dominating in the science-related issues. Here’s where the three major parties stand. For the minor parties (only ACT at this stage – read the science policy positions on the SMC website).

Environment vs economic growth

Given that controversial issues such as mining the conservation estate, petroleum exploration and “dirty dairying” have attracted plenty of attention during National’s first term, its no surprise that they are attracting air time during the election campaign.

Key in leading the charge has, not surprisingly, been the Green Party, which has made two of its three policy planks environment-related. First, there’s the focus on improving water quality, which the Greens intend to tackle by putting a price on water:

We want to introduce a fair charge for the commercial use of water. This charge incentivises uses of our water resources to do so more efficiently creating demand for good solutions. Some of the revenue generated by this charge would be recycled back into low tech waterway protection — riparian planting. Agriculture, as an industry where we have a competitive advantage, would be a good candidate for receiving the R&D tax credits and grants mentioned above.

Then there’s the highly ambitious plan to create 100,000 jobs through green growth strategies:

We’ll create 100,000 new jobs through direct government investment, changing the way our state-owned energy companies work, and shifting the drivers for green jobs in the private sector.

National is taking a “balanced approach” to the issue of improving water quality and points to the money it is pouring into cleaning up polluted waterways

We have increased the investment in waterway clean-ups by five-fold to more than $265 million, compared to just $16 million spent between 2004 and 2008.  This will clean up significant water bodies such as Lake Taupo and the Waikato River, and reflects the importance National puts on improved fresh water management.  This also includes a $15 million contestable water clean-up fund for Councils with water pollution problems.

National also established the Land and Water Forum during its first term and unveiled a National Policy Statement on freshwater.

Both National and the Greens have gone big on home insulation – its one of the few areas they have collaborated on ths far.

National for its part claims it is “serious about global warming and tackling climate change”:

We have established the Global Research Alliance and provided $45 million for research aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions. We have also established a Green Growth Advisory Group, to provide advice on how to achieve economic growth while also promoting environmental protection. Our goal is to be 90% renewable by 2025. A key factor in achieving this goal is reform of the Resource Management Act, allowing renewable projects to be consented far earlier than under the previous Government. We invest around $18 m per year in renewable energy research. This includes research into geothermal, bio, solar, wave and tidal energy.

Labour, which set the goal for 90 per cent renewable energy production, is sticking to that goal.  It also favours an earlier introduction of farming into the Emissions Trading Scheme than National.

On the issue of petroleum exploration, the Greens and Labour are on the same page. Labour notes:

’Labour will not allow deep sea drilling to occur unless such standards and safeguards are in place, as well as robust contingency plans and an effective rapid response capability if an incident occurs. We will also establish a comprehensive oceans policy, including legislating to safeguard New Zealand’s ocean ecosystems and to minimise the environmental risks of activities in our EEZ.

And the Greens:

A spill the size of the Gulf disaster would have catastrophic impacts on large parts of our coast. We don’t see the potential gains as worth the risk.’

National is on the record as supporting exploitation of petroleum reserves in New Zealand waters – if exploratory surveying discovers them. But it is moving fast to strengthen legislation and standards to convince the country it is prepared for a Gulf of Mexico-style disaster. Many New Zealanders remain firmly opposed to petroleum exploration because it exploits a fossil fuel industry and because our small scale makes responding to major disasters difficult. Says National:

’The proposed new law [Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill] will protect New Zealand’s oceans from the potential environmental risks of activities like petroleum exploration, mining, marine energy, and carbon capture developments. The new system will work alongside existing legislation that manages fishing and maritime transport. It has also been carefully designed to ensure it is consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations.”

The innovation push

All of the political parties are singing from the same hymn sheet on the need for the country to up its game on the innovation front, with the OECD figures showing our woeful investment record in this area regularly trotted out by politicians all across the political spectrum.

The harder question to answer is how best to go about boosting innovation and in particular the level of private R&D that is going on in the country.

Labour has resurrected ita tax credit policy from before the last election, planning on introducing a scheme that would reward companies for investing in R&D:

’Labour will introduce a Research & Development (R&D) tax credit at the rate of 12.5%. It will lift New Zealand’s lagging R&D expenditure by encouraging businesses to research and innovate.

Other countries have R&D tax credits and many cite our lack of one as a barrier to attracting foreign investment in science projects in New Zealand. For instance, Australia this year beefed up its support of private sector R&D with the so-called R&D Tax Incentive (see this Q&A for details).  What the scheme allows for is:

- a 45 per cent refundable tax offset (equivalent to a 150 per cent deduction) for eligible R&D entities with a turnover of less than $20 million per annum;

- a non-refundable 40 per cent tax offset (equivalent to 133 per cent deduction) for all other eligible R&D entities. Unused offset amounts can be carried forward for use in future income years.

The argument against tax credits has typically been that it is hard to prove their efficacy and that companies will try to reclassify activities to make them eligible for the tax exemption. National has taken a different approach, instead boosting public money available to public and private scientific activity and introducing a technology transfer voucher scheme to encourage collaboration between public science institutions and private companies.

National claims it is working:

’The results of this have been clear. New Zealand now invests $2.5 billion a year in science and innovation — up 13 per cent from 2008. R&D spending as a percentage of GDP was up to 1.3% (up from 1.19%), and business R&D spending was $1 billion (up 10%).

Perhaps most significant in terms of its strategy to boost innovation is National’s endorsement of the MSI-commissioned Powering Innovation report, which was released last week and attracted praise from leading scientists. This would turn the Crown Research Institute, Industrial Research, into an innovation hub for hi-tech and high-value manufacturing in New Zealand.

Essentially it would double the size of IRL over the next five years and make innovation the key plank of the Government’s science investment strategy.  National is expected to act on the findings of the report, at least in part, if it is re-elected.

The Greens have an ambitious R&D policy:

Through a mix of government procurement policies, tax incentives, start-up funding, and a $1 billion boost to R&D funding, we’ll support SMEs to step up and drive new job creation in the cleantech sector.

There’s been little in-depth discussion of the billion dollar plan to boost R&D because the Green Party is highly unlikely to be in a position to enact the policy post election. But it is the level of investment in innovation many are calling for to achieve the step change in innovation investment pretty much everyone agrees we need.

Science leadership

One crucial issue which so far hasn’t played out on the election trail is who is showing the strongest leadership in science-related policy.

The current Science and Innovation minister, Dr Wayne Mapp, is stepping down after the election, so if National retains power, a new minister will be chosen.As such, Mapp has had a low profile during this election campaign.

In the meantime, there isn’t really a strong voice on science issues from a ministerial level, except for where John Key steps in himself or when Dr Nick Smith speaks up on environment-related issues.

David Shearer is Labour’s science spokesman – he has been fairly low-key on this area of policy so far, though Labour is expected to roll out its science policy next week, so expect him to be vocal then.

The Green Party’s science and environment policy is so integral to the party’s core values that Russel Norman has been very active in this area, particularly in pushing the parties green growth and cleantech policies.

Scientists as scapegoats? Peter Griffin Sep 21

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Day one of the trial of several Italian seismologists facing manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to predict an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila in April 2009 kicked off today.

Nature has been following the situation closely and this piece gives great background on the situation the scientists have found themselves in.

This is the interesting bit – what can we expect the impact to be on science as the trial plays out?

“Although the outcome of the trial may not be known for months, if not years, the events leading up to the earthquake are already being viewed as a sobering case study in risk assessment and public communication – a scenario that might easily be replayed in a future that includes not just ‘conventional’ natural disasters (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis), but also extreme weather events (such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and droughts) perhaps cooked up by climate change.
The trial has already had a chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to share their expertise with the public.”

Scientists in New Zealand are naturally watching the case closely and no doubt, in some cases, reflecting on how scientific information on risk from natural hazards is disseminated and interpreted by the public here. Here’s the letter of support for the Italian seismologists many New Zealand scientists joined others around the world in signing.

Here’s what Dr Mark Quigley of the University of Canterbury had to say about the trial:

’To me this highlights the importance of effective science communication; it is important to provide the public with probabilistic earthquake ‘forecasts’ but it is equally important to contextualize these assessments (e.g., earthquake probabilities in the midst of an aftershock sequence compared to ‘background’ probabilities) and to provide sufficient information on the methodology and limitations of these forecasts.

’And finally, it is important to emphasize to the public that no precursory phenomena (e.g., gas release, micro-earthquakes, thermal anomalies, animal behavior, strain rate changes, electrical phenomena, lunar phenomena) have produced a successful and reproducible short-term earthquake prediction scheme. This is not for lack of trying, and these methods should continue to undergo scientific testing and scrutiny. However, the holy grail of earthquake prediction, as defined through specification of a defined geographic region, depth, time window, and magnitude range, remains elusive at present.

I couldn’t agree with him more. It would set a pretty dangerous example to have the experts we rely on for scientific advice made criminally liable if the advice they give is wrong or ineffective, particularly in areas of science that are incredibly uncertain. We listen to the scientists because we respect them and their track record and fund them to do the best research possible, knowing that in many areas of science certainty is elusive. Criminal and civil cases against, say,  doctors accused of medical misadventure are a different deal completely.

Times Atlas attracts wrath of glaciologists Peter Griffin Sep 20

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It is quite possibly the best-respected mainstream atlas in the world, but the Times Atlas of the World has attracted the scorn of scientists this week after publicity for its new issue claimed 15 per cent of the mass of Greenland had ato be erased to reflect the impact of ice loss due to warming.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

The publishers claim improved accuracy of measurements has shown a 15 per cent reduction in Greenland ice cover in 12 years.

TV3 News ran a piece on the story (from ITV last night).

But scientists are rejecting the claim and already labelling it worse that the “glaciergate” debacle, which saw eroneous information in an IPCC report overstate the chances of Himilayan glaciers disappearing due to climate change.

Here’s what Jethro Lennox, publishing manager, Times Atlases claims in the promotional video that was released to announce the new edition of the Times Atlas of the World, which is updated every four years.

“We are seeing an increasing amount of physical changes around the world. So you have things like the sea ice extent. We’ve mapped the extent of that. The Greenland ice cap, we’ve seen a drastic reduction of about 15 per cent.”

Glaciologists were quick off the mark in responding – my colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London rounded up their comments.

Graham Cogley, Professor of Geography at Trent University, Ontario, Canada summed it up best:

’Fortunately the mistake about the Greenland Ice Sheet is much more obvious and indefensible than the Himalayan error.  In the aftermath of ‘Himalayagate’, we glaciologists are hypersensitive to egregious errors in supposedly authoritative sources.  Climate change is real, and Greenland ice cover is shrinking.  But the claims here are simply not backed up by science.  This pig can’t fly.

’There are various ways to quantify the scale of the mistake. For example the global average rate of glacier shrinkage is somewhere near to 0.2% per year, but that number is heavily influenced by very small glaciers. Glacier shrinkage on the global scale is difficult to grapple with, but one clear conclusion is that smaller glaciers shrink much faster (in percentage terms) than bigger ones. The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second biggest glacier of all, and the Times Atlas’ contention that it has lost 300,000 sq km in the past 12 years, that is, at a rate of 1.5%/yr (because its nominal area is 1.7 million sq km), would be very surprising indeed if it could be validated. The best measurements in Greenland, which cover only part of the ice sheet, suggest that 1.5%/yr is at least 10 times faster than reality. It could easily be 20 times too fast and might well be 50 times too fast.

’In fact, what may have happened is that somebody, somewhere, has examined a satellite image and has mistaken the snowline for the ice margin. Snow is much brighter than bare ground, but it is also a good deal brighter than bare ice, of which there is quite a lot in summer around the margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet.’

So what did happen? I haven’t been able to find an official release from the publishers in response yet. However, Daily Mail columnist Mike Hanlon spoke to publisher Sheena Barclay and got this:

How did this happen? According to Ms Barclay at the scale of the Greenland map (1:12,500,000) only ice thicker than 500 metres is shown. But this is patently not the case. On the same spread in the Atlas, at the same scale, small ice caps in both Iceland and British Columbia are also shown in white. I asked the scientists at the SPRI to confirm that these ice caps were much thinner than 500 metres and they were able to do so.

It gets worse. The Greenlandic ice cap is marked with a series of contours at 500-metre intervals. But nowhere on the map, or in the Key at the beginning of the Atlas, is it made clear what these contours refer to. It cannot be altitude as many intersect with another set of contours which clearly DO show height above sea level. These contours seem to be ice-thickness contours, produced from radar data. Fair enough, but this needs to be explained, which it is not, and it also needs to be explained why other ice-covered areas (including Antarctica, Iceland, Canada etc) are marked with elevation-contours not ice-thickness contours.

Worst of all, according to the SPRI, the publishers did not, as they are claiming, use the same method in 1999 — when even quite small mountain glaciers in Greenland were shown, properly, as ‘ice covered’.

I’d expect, in the face of such reaction from the scientific community, the atlas will have to be recalled, those copies (which sell for 150 pounds each), will have to be destroyed. At the moment however, the publishers seem to be standing by their atlas claims as this article from Science suggests.

Anyway, not something that helps the case of scientists trying to get accurate information out to the public about the true and concerning level of ice melt in Greenland…

Chronic fatigue research sparks death threats Peter Griffin Aug 22

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Since I’ve been in the science sector, I’ve heard about scientists in the UK involved in animal testing receiving death threats as well as Australian climate scientists being intimidated.

Source: The Observer

Source: The Observer

I’ve also heard unconfirmed reports that at least one genetic modification scientist in New Zealand left the country a few years ago because of intimidation from anti-GM protestors.

So the heavying of scientists who work in controversial areas of research isn’t new – but now you can add chronic fatigue to the professionally high-risk reseach areas.

The Observer reports that scientists in the UK are receiving death threats from activists who claim they are covering up the real causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness that scientists have been seeking to understand for at least 20 years.

One researcher told the Observer that a woman protester who had turned up at one of his lectures was found to be carrying a knife. Another scientist had to abandon a collaboration with American doctors after being told she risked being shot, while another was punched in the street. All said they had received death threats and vitriolic abuse.

In addition, activists — who attack scientists who suggest the syndrome has any kind of psychological association — have bombarded researchers with freedom of information requests, made rounds of complaints to university ethical committees about scientists’ behaviour, and sent letters falsely alleging that individual scientists are in the pay of drug and insurance companies.

Source: Observer

Source: Observer

One scientist, Professor Simon Wesseley, said he felt safer doing research into Gulf War syndrome and similar conditions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan than he did in Britain researching chronic fatigue syndrome.

Other scientists are installing panic buttons and having their mail x-rayed.

So what is it about chronic fatigue research that is stirring up the type of hatred usually reserved for vivisectionists?

Well, chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is bloody horrible. It can leave you in a permanent malaise of exhaustion, pain, befuddlement, that for some results in total incapacitation. At best it can be like mild, but lingering jet-lag. At worst – you’ll end up being fed through a tube. The annoying thing is that the cause of it is unknown. It is thought to be a condition that affects the nervous system, but scientists don’t really know for sure.

But it is the suggestion that the condition may be at least partly psychological that has people baying for the scientists’ blood. As the Observer explains:

The antagonists hate any suggestion of a psychological component and insist it is due to external causes, in particular viruses.

Insurance company Southern Cross estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 New Zealanders suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. A survey of general practitioners back in 1993 showed wide a 90% acceptance rate of chronic fatigue syndrome as a clinically valid diagnosis. The survey followed controversy when the small Otago town of Tapanui in the 1980s appeared to be the site of a cluster of cases of chronic fatigue syndrome, which became known locally as Tapanui flu. In 1984, Tapanui GP Peter Snow was the first to describe an outbreak of an illness characterised by chronic fatigue. In 2002 he published this piece in the New Zealand Medical Journal reflecting on the cases. He writes:

Since that period, much research has been done and published. However none have been able to implicate a single all encompassing aetiology…Unfortunately chronic fatigue syndrome has become a convenient dumping ground for the difficult to diagnose. Fatigue is a presenting symptom of many disorders.

One thing is for sure – it is crucial that research into this condition continues and that scientists we allowed to pursue their research unmolested. My colleague at the Science Media Centre in the UK says it best in the Observer article:

Using threats and intimidation to prevent scientists pursuing specific avenues of research or speaking out is damaging not just science. It harms society.

It seems that

Big Pharma: We don’t want to kill Pharmac Peter Griffin Aug 22

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A flurry of newspaper columns and editorials in the last few months have looked at New Zealand’s efforts to strike a free trade deal with the United States and the impact that might have on our drug-buying Government agency Pharmac.

You see, the US apparently considers Pharmac as anticompetitive and limiting the ability of US drug companies to sell their products in New Zealand.

According to University of Auckland law professor Jane Kelsey writing recently in the Herald:

The challenge to our pharmaceutical purchasing agency is an obvious second crunch point. The big-pharma lobby in the US and here has declared Pharmac ‘an egregious example’ of what it considers unfair practices. Leaked US and New Zealand texts reveal an initial standoff between the two parties. Yet the Key government has refused to take Pharmac off the table, raising concerns about what Trade Minister Tim Groser means by protecting the ‘fundamentals’ of our affordable medicines regime. Significantly, the Labour Opposition has broken the previous bipartisan consensus on free trade agreements and made Pharmac a red line issue.

Writing in the Herald, seasoned trade commentator Fran O’Sullivan puts it a bit more bluntly:

…we would have to sacrifice Pharmac before the United States will let our dairy farmers in.

This morning I received a letter from Medicines New Zealand, which represents the likes of Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and Merck Sharpe & Dohme – some of the biggest drug companies in the world.

“The medicines industry is NOT advocating for the abolition of Pharmac”, writes Medicines New Zealand general manager Kevin Sheehy.  Our industry works with agencies similar to PHARMAC all around the world. The central approval or funding agency model is fast becoming the norm”.

So what do the drug companies actually want if it isn’t seeking an end to Pharmac? “Some reforms to the Pharmac model,” writes Sheehy.

“These reforms stem from a long held and on-going concern that New Zealanders are not gaining access to best-in-class and first-in-class medicines.”

He then goes on to list what exactly the industry does want:

- Better transparency around funding applications and the Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC) as well as for the scientific evidence on which decisions are made. More transparency? Seems reasonable.

- Establish a timeline for processing applications and make decisions (“don’t sit on PTAC recommendations for many years”). Again, fair enough.

- Clear definition of decision criteria and how they are applied. Yep, makes for better decision making and transparency.

- Direct stakeholder representation to the clinical committees. Hmm, could be problematic – not sure about that, surely the clinical research should speak for itself and input should be independent?

- All health technology investment decisions made on similar grounds. Assuming that it is reasonable to make health technology investment decisions on the same terms, sounds reasonable.

- Intellectual property regime brought up to international best practice. This is the big unknown – what exactly does this mean? The IT and creative sectors are already struggling with this on copyright and software patents and it is a hugely factious issue. It could be enough to undo everything listed above. More info from the industry is needed here.

Sheehy goes on to claim that a free trade agreement with the US would not result in price hikes for drugs.

“Following Australia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US, Australia has benefitted from access to more innovative medicines, a flourishing generic market and the growth of their medicines expenditure has reduced. Any changes are highly unlikely to result in increased costs for medicines currently available in New Zealand.”

So, if not totally reassuring to proponents of the Pharmac model, certainly a different stance to what has been implied in the media – that the dismantling of Pharmac is a condition of us getting a FTA with the US and is a high priority of the drug companies.

We are satisfied… so why the high suicide rates? Peter Griffin Aug 18

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Take a look at the graphs below, from the Mental Health Commission’s National Indicators 2011 report that uses 15 indicators to measure the mental health of the population.

The top graph shows the results of a 2006 international Gallop poll that measured life satisfaction among participants in OECD countries.  New Zealand came out looking pretty good – we are above the OECD median when it comes to a measure of life satisfaction, a statistic that is backed up by the 2008 New Zealand General Social Survey, which found that 86 per cent of New Zealanders are “satisfied with their life”.

Now take a look at the second set of graphs, which the media has seized on today. They show that New Zealand has relatively high rates of youth suicide compared to OCED countries, and that New Zealand has the highest rate of suicide across the OECD for women aged 15 – 24.

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

So we are generally satisfied with our lives, but our young people are taking their own lives at a rate much higher than the OECD median and at a rate that sees us claim the dubious distinction of leading the OECD for youth suicide in young women. So what’s going on here?

Well, even the scientists aren’t sure.We asked respected researcher Professor David Ferguson, from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago what he made of the data sets released in the report. He responded:

“The reasons for countries like New Zealand and Finland having high rates of suicide despite high reported satisfaction are by no means clear. The things that links these countries are that they are small liberal democracies with high rates of alcohol consumption but whether these factors have any bearing rates of suicide is also unclear. There is no intrinsic paradox in a country having a high rate of suicide and high life satisfaction bearing in mind that life satisfaction refers to the views of the majority and suicide to the behaviour of a very small minority.

“While there have been a number of speculative comments about New Zealand’s high rate of suicide,  there are no generally accepted explanations for this. One possibility that needs to be considered is whether national differences reflect differences in reporting accuracy.

Key findings of the report included:

• The majority of New Zealanders (86%) report feeling satisfied with their life as a whole

• People less likely to report feeling satisfied are middle-aged, Mäori, Pacific and those from low socio-economic neighbourhoods

• The suicide death rate has improved since the mid-1990s. In 2008 the suicide death rate was lower than in the mid-1980s

• The proportion of the population accessing secondary mental health and addiction services has increased from 2.2% in 2002/03 to 2.7% in 2008/09

• Overall, people with symptoms of mental illness or addiction feel less included in society

• Young people appear to be the most socially excluded of all groups among people with symptoms of mental distress

Snow from space Peter Griffin Aug 16

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Satellite images of New Zealand snapped right now looks rather impressive as parts of the country are layered in snow.

UPDATE: Latest satellite images of New Zealand from NOAA are available here and a nice NASA image showing the weather pattern responsible for the snowfall is available here (H/T Sciblogger Chris McDowall and Scilbogs reader Ross Petherick).

Credit: NOAA/Landcare Research

Credit: NOAA/Landcare Research

These images of the US and the United Kingdom taken from space during last winter in the north are certainly impressive. Here are some of them…

The US monster winter storm

A massive winter storm affecting 30 states from Texas and the Rockies to New England blasted the US with snow, sleet and freezing rain in January. NASA satellites captured images of the storm systems and the snowbound country.

Three images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Terra satellite were combined to create this image of the storm system. The images were captured on Jan. 31 at 10:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m., and 1:45 p.m. ET (15:30, 17:05, and 18:45 UTC). Diagonal lines across the image show the boundaries between the overpasses. White gaps are areas where the sensor did not collect data. The image has a resolution of one kilometer per pixel. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Three images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Terra satellite were combined to create this image of the storm system. The images were captured on Jan. 31 at 10:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m., and 1:45 p.m. ET (15:30, 17:05, and 18:45 UTC). Diagonal lines across the image show the boundaries between the overpasses. White gaps are areas where the sensor did not collect data. The image has a resolution of one kilometer per pixel. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

This NASA satellite image from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, taken Jan. 31, 2011 at 18:47 UTC (1:47 p.m. EST), shows the early stages of a developing storm in the plains and Midwestern states. This image highlights a preponderance of cold air in Canada and the northern US (green and blue colors). Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

This NASA satellite image from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, taken Jan. 31, 2011 at 18:47 UTC (1:47 p.m. EST), shows the early stages of a developing storm in the plains and Midwestern states. This image highlights a preponderance of cold air in Canada and the northern US (green and blue colors). Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

This visible image was captured by the GOES-13 satellite and shows the low pressure area stretching from the Colorado Rockies and Texas east to New England. The image shows the storm on Feb. 1 at 1401 UTC (9:01 a.m. EST) by the NASA GOES Project, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The GOES series of satellites are operated by NOAA.  Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

This visible image was captured by the GOES-13 satellite and shows the low pressure area stretching from the Colorado Rockies and Texas east to New England. The image shows the storm on Feb. 1 at 1401 UTC (9:01 a.m. EST) by the NASA GOES Project, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The GOES series of satellites are operated by NOAA. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

The UK’s icy winter blast

European Space Agency satellite instruments observed the the icy blast in the UK from their vantage points in space last November and December.

Leicester scientists used two instruments, MERIS and AATSR, which returned stunning images of a snow-bound UK from observations on November 29th and December 1st.

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Nov. 29.  Credit: MERIS 29 November 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Nov. 29. Credit: MERIS 29 November 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by AATSR on Dec. 1.  Credit: AATSR 01 December 2010. Credit: AATSR data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by AATSR on Dec. 1. Credit: AATSR 01 December 2010. Credit: AATSR data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Dec. 1.  Credit: MERIS 01 December 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Dec. 1. Credit: MERIS 01 December 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

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