Archive March 2012

RIP Sir Paul Callaghan: scientist, businessman, visionary for a better NZ Peter Griffin Mar 24


Professor Sir Paul Terence Callaghan, 64, one of New Zealand’s most honoured scientists, died in Wellington today having fought a stoic fight against the bowel cancer which he was diagnosed with in 2008

Sir Paul Callaghan

Sir Paul Callaghan

Sir Paul, a former New Zealander of the Year (see right), and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, winner of the nation’s top science prize, the Rutherford medal,  co-winner of the prime minister’s Science Prize, recipient of the Sir Peter Blake medal, and  the Gunther Laukien Prize for work in magnetic resonance spent his last years not only promoting science and technology – and their links to economic success – but his wider visions for the nation.

He founded the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, which has become a centre of excellence for research in new materials and Sir Paul fostered a culture there that encouraged a new generation of scientists to also be effective science communicators.

Magritek, a high-tech company he helped found, was part of his advocacy for a high-tech future for the nation, and he cautioned that taxpayer funding should not be poured blindly into biotech or ’clean tech’. Instead the money provided for research should be doubled to bring bright ideas out of the woodwork.  ’We will be good at what we are good at,’ he said..’ We can’t know in advance which fields will be most productive’.

And he didn’t mince his words in other sectors, accusing New Zealanders of specialising in ’hypocrisy and cliche’ when they claimed to be clean-and-green after fellling two-thirds of their native forests to create farmland, while driving hundreds of species to extinction.

A director of  Zealandia, the fenced ’mainlaind island’ at Wellington, he proposed putting such reserves near remaining forests and national parks to provide reservoirs of native birds to re-occupy the wild lands.

At one point Sir Paul talked of the cancer killing him as ’just a bit of a perturbation’ in his life: ’I’ve got some cells inside me and suddenly they’re starting to misbehave. But they’re mine, it’s not some foreign disease. I don’t feel a malevolent presence.’

But the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington noted in another interview from his sickbed that science could not tell people how to live as humans: ’It cannot solve human ethical issues’.

He was happiest teaching physics to advanced undergraduates, opening their eyes to the astonishing insights of physics, and the most moving experience had been in the moments of discovery, seeing something new in nature for the first time. At 36, after a successful experiment, he lay awake all night contemplating the beauty of the atomic nucleus in its dance.

’People have their religious moments,’ he recalled. ’I’ve never had one of those. This was a scientific moment — and it was pretty cool. Every human being should have one of those in their life’.


Sir Paul named New Zealander of the year — TVNZ interview

What is there to be afraid of? — Sunday Star-Times

Sir Paul speaks at the Bright Ideas Challenge 2010

Science guru’s other first prize — New Zealand Herald

Tracking a photo’s digital DNA Peter Griffin Mar 20


The Government is set to introduce technology aimed at combatting the trade in child sex abuse images by identifying images and therefore their spread via the internet through their digital DNA.

The Department of Internal Affairs’ Censorship Compliance Unit will deploy Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology.  Micrsoft has a digital crimes unit and in recent years has ramped up its efforts in developing software to fight electronic crime. This is a great move as it will help investigators track the spread and hopefully identify the source of child sex images – and help catch the people who peddle such filth.

How does PhotoDNA work? According to Microsoft:

PhotoDNA uses a mathematical technique known as robust hashing that works by calculating a unique signature into a ’hash’ that represents the essence of a particular photo. In the same way that the characteristics of every person’s DNA are different, the signature or ’hash value’ for every photo is different, enabling the creation of a hash that can identify an image based on its unique characteristics or its ’digital DNA.’ Although a photo’s hash cannot be used to re-create an image or identify people or items within an image, it can be compared with hashes of other photos as a reliable way to match two different copies of the same image.

This diagram explains how it works…


Fracking wells and air emissions Peter Griffin Mar 20


Hot on the heels of the weekend’s deluge of fracking stories comes research from the US that suggests chemicals released into the air in the process of hydraulic fracturing could prove a health risk to those living nearby.

fracking-drillingTower-dmtm-300x198A three-year study by the Colorado School of Public Health looked at the airborne chemicals released near fracking wells in Garfield County, Colorado. Garfield is set to become a hotbed of fracking activity which spurred county officials to commission the research. According to Bloomberg News, “one operator has proposed drilling 200 wells about 500 feet from homes in Garfield County”.

But scrutiny of fracking, both in the US and here in New Zealand, has largely focused on the risk of water contamination and the potential for fracking to trigger minor earthquakes. This latest study, to be published in Science of the Total Environment suggests monitoring of air quality near fracking sites is as important, particularly in places where fracking is permitted in close proximity to residential areas.

Chemicals detected in the air near the wells include trimethylbenzenes, aliaphatic hydrocarbons, and xylenes.

The chemicals, say the researchers, comes from a “complex mixture of pollutants from the natural gas resource itself as well as diesel engines, tanks containing produced water, and on site materials used in production, such as drilling muds and fracking fluids. This complex mixture of chemicals and resultant secondary air pollutants, such as ozone, can be transported to nearby residences and population centers.” The chance of emissions from fracking escaping apparently is most pronounced when the wells are being built.

According to Bloomberg, which summarized the research:

’Non-cancer health impacts from air emissions due to natural-gas development is greater for residents living closer to wells,’ according to the [researchers]. ’We also calculated higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells.’

Benzene, a carcinogen, and chemicals that can irritate eyes and cause headaches, sore throats or difficulty breathing, were found in air close to the wells.

What can we here in New Zealand take away from it? Any scientific examination of fracking sites should also look at air quality near fracking wells. That’s certainly the conclusion of the US Environmental Protection Agency which is proposing introducing standards that would reduce emissions from wells.

Again, from Bloomberg:

The EPA proposal would cut smog-forming emissions by 25 percent through existing technologies that capture escaping gas, the agency said. The rule would also prevent the release of 3.4 million tons of methane, a greenhouse house that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That’s equal to taking 11 million passenger cars off the road, the EPA said.

According to the EPA, the rule would also lead to net gain of $30 million a year for drillers who will have more gas to market.

More on the study from the Denver Post.

The researchers conclude that the results warrant further examination of the issue as fracking activity increases significantly in Colorado and other states.

These preliminary results indicate that health effects resulting from air emissions during development of unconventional natural gas resources are most likely to occur in residents living nearest to the well pads and warrant further study. Risk prevention efforts should be directed towards reducing air emission exposures for persons living and working near wells during well completions.

The study isn’t available yet online, but here’s the study abstract:


Background: Technological advances (e.g. directional drilling, hydraulic fracturing), have led to increases in unconventional natural gas development (NGD), raising questions about health impacts.

Objectives: We estimated health risks for exposures to air emissions from a NGD project in Garfield County, Colorado with the objective of supporting risk prevention recommendations in a health impact assessment (HIA).

Methods: We used EPA guidance to estimate chronic and subchronic non-cancer hazard indices and cancer risks from exposure to hydrocarbons for two populations: (1) residents living > ½ mile from wells and (2) residents living ≤ ½ mile from wells.

Results: Residents living ≤ ½ mile from wells are at greater risk for health effects from NGD than are residents living > ½ mile from wells. Subchronic exposures to air pollutants during well completion activities present the greatest potential for health effects.   The subchronic non-cancer hazard index (HI) of 5 for residents ≤ ½ mile from wells was driven primarily by exposure to trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons.  Chronic HIs were 1 and 0.4. for residents ≤ ½ mile from wells and > ½ mile from wells, respectively.  Cumulative cancer risks were 10 in a million and 6 in a million for residents living  â‰¤ ½ mile and > ½ mile from wells, respectively, with benzene as the major contributor to the risk.

Conclusions: Risk assessment can be used in HIAs to direct health risk prevention strategies.  Risk management approaches should focus on reducing exposures to emissions during well completions.  These preliminary results indicate that health effects resulting from air emissions during unconventional NGD warrant further study. Prospective studies should focus on health effects associated with air pollution.

Fracking – we need an independent investigation Peter Griffin Mar 19


The media has been having a field day on fracking lately.

Former TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner, in his first piece for 60 Minutes, Meet the Frackers, did a fairly thorough treatment of the issue on TV3 last night, with 60 Minutes devoting half of their programme to it.

Chris Laidlaw on his Sunday programme on Radio New Zealand did a good job of canvassing the issues. Both programmes had extensive input from scientists and plenty of background on overseas cases where evidence suggest fracking activity can trigger small earthquakes and pollute water supplies if not carried out correctly.

The Weekend Press chipped in with Wake up to the dangers of fracking,a startling interview with former Cantabrian Bill Strudley who with his family had to leave their home in Colorado last year because they were “‘being poisoned’ by nearby gas-well drilling”.

Said Strudley, who is sueing Antero Resources Corporation, the company that drilled the wells near his former home:

“It was like living in a meth lab. We kept getting nosebleeds, severe skin rashes and welts, and had trouble breathing, among other symptoms.

The Taranaki Daily News also had an extensive feature in its weekend edition, Cracks show in fracks, looking at fracking activity in the Taranaki region and evidence of groundwater pollution that was previously flagged in a council report.

TVNZ’s Sunday programme ran a lengthy piece, A Fracking Mess, on fracking a couple of weeks back but did a disservice to viewers by simply running an Australian ABC-produced piece looking at fracking practices in the US, not even mentioning in the voiceover the New Zealand situation – which is quite different.

The TVNZ Sunday programme was dominated by the claims made in filmmaker Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland and included the infamous scene from that film where a man sets fire to the water flowing from his tap – because it contains so much methane.

sunday fracking

Gasland is controversial – the oil and gas industry lashed out at Fox claiming numerous inaccuracies and even writing to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when the film was nominated for an Oscar. Was Gasland error-ridden? An extensive examination of the claims made and the oil and gas industry’s debunking of Gasland suggests, as Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh put it:

To me, it looks like both Fox and the drilling industry have taken some liberty with the facts and relied on technicalities to push their points, but there seem to be no killer errors in the film, no knockout blow.

But as Walsh points out, a single documentary is not going to settle the issue, something that’s worth remembering as New Zealand filmmakers Tom and Barbara Sumner Burstyn embark on making Fracking Whatatutu, a documentary that will, according to the pair:

…examine the national and global implications of fracking via the microcosm of Whatatutu’s experience, challenging the claims of environmentalists and oil companies alike.

Whatatutu is a town 45 minutes from Gisborne with around 300 residents. It is in the area that Canadian oil company TAG Oil claims is ’literally leaking oil and gas’. TAG and its partner Apache intend to use fracking in the area to extract oil and gas. They have been issued exploration permits by the Government to do so.

The Burstyns are trying to crowdsource $150,000 in funding for their documentary via Pledgeme and have already raised over $11,000. Many will know Barbara Sumner Burstyn via her anti-vaccination rhetoric. She was an active campaigner against the MeNZB vaccination programme in partnership with anti-vaxxer Ron Law, a regular visitor to Sciblogs. Burstyn is entitled to her opinion, but her fracking documentary already shows signs of taking a similarly highly partisan line. In a recent exchange with her in the Kiwi Journalists Forum, she responded to me with:

…no hiding we have a bias. However our stance is ‘convince me’. To get the answers you have to ask the right questions.All our work shows we have a green bias. So pretending otherwise is silly. We all bring our subjective belief systems to everything we do. It’s how you manage it that counts.

Despite that, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not relying on Fracking Whatatutu to be the authoritative word on fracking in New Zealand. And as good as the pieces over the weekend were, they offered no definitive answers and in some cases produced more heat than light, which comes down to the media’s need to simplify an issue down to its bare essentials. As Sunday attempted to succinctly put it while at the same time drastically oversimplifying the issue:

Fracking is either a godsend or a threat to life as we know it.

The situation is that fracking seems to have been safely conducted in New Zealand since the practice was first used in the early 90s, but there are genuine concerns based on overseas examples where water has been tainted and tiny tremors created as a result of fracking. These concerns have been fuelled by recent scrutiny overseas of fracking which is extensively undertaken in the US and Canada and is on the increase as the oil and gas industry looks to extract resources from more difficult to reach places.

Time for some official scrutiny

The time would seem to be ripe for a robust and independent investigation into fracking.There is a hodgepodge of anecdotal accounts, randomly referenced studies, claims and counterclaims about fracking, doing the rounds in the media. There will be much more in the coming months. We need an independent view on this to cut through the confusion.

That’s also the view of New Plymouth mayor Harry Duynhoven. Despite the wealth oil and gas companies generate for his region, he told 60 Minutes that it was time for an independent inquiry. It is the only thing that is really going to give those communities in areas where fracking is used or is planned for, some certainty one way or other about the safety of it.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, is currently doing some “scoping work” around considering whether an independent commission looking at fracking should be set up. Given how influential her report on 1080 use was last year, her view on the issue will carry a lot of weight. In the meantime, Green MP Gareth Hughes has asked his fellow Local Government and Environment Select Committee members to look at fracking. He wants to look at overseas examples, the chemicals used in fracking, the potential for water pollution, the seismicity claims and an examination of the regulatory framework.

Select committee hearings would give everyone an opportunity to have their say in a transparent fashion. Its clear from the reports over the weekend that the oil and gas industry needs to divulge more information about the fracking process, its track record in New Zealand and the scale of activity planned for the future. The scientific evidence needs to be reviewed, with experts called to present to the select committee. The ideal scenario is a select committee inquiry in conjunction with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment taking a look at the issue.

Another blow to our SKA chances? Peter Griffin Mar 17

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A week after Australian newspapers ran reports based on leaked information that South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array is favoured over a rival bid from Australia and New Zealand, comes ratification of an EU agreement to partner with African countries on radio astronomy.

The adoption by the European Parliament yesterday of Science Capacity Building in Africa: promoting European-African radio astronomy partnerships doesn’t mention the Square Kilometre Array, but the timing could be seen as significant given that a final decision on who will host the $2.7 billion radio telescope project is just weeks away. Here is the declaration in full:

The European Parliament,

— having regard to the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, which aims at strengthening science and technology cooperation between the EU and Africa,

— having regard to the Millennium Development Goals, which identify the essential role of science and technology for socio-economic transformation,

— having regard to Rule 123 of its Rules of Procedure,

A. recognising the value of research infrastructures in facilitating cooperation with Africa, promoting human capital development and addressing societal challenges, as noted in the
Innovation Union and Europe 2020 Strategy,

B. acknowledging Africa’s unique competitive advantage in the study of radio astronomy, reflected in the extensive existing radio astronomy projects located in Africa (PAPER, VLBI network, MeerKAT, etc.),

C. recognising that further European involvement in African radio astronomy can become a powerful driver of socioeconomic growth in Africa and create a new range of market
opportunities for both continents,

1. Urges the Commission, Council and the parliaments of the Member States to:

(a) support the development of science capacity in Africa through greater investment in research infrastructures, with particular focus on radio astronomy projects,

(b) promote the science of radio astronomy and the innovation and research potential of radio astronomy initiatives in future Africa-EU partnerships,

(c) mobilise EU funding mechanisms, including the Framework Programmes and the

Development Cooperation Instrument, to support these objectives;

2. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Commission, the Council and the parliaments of the Member States.

Given that three of the four countries (United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy and China) that form the panel that will decide the location of the SKA, are EU member states, the declaration is all the more significant.

Despite indignation from South Africa this week over suggestions that politics and social development aspirations and not just technical details will play a role in deciding the host of the SKA, the declaration also highlights the importance of social development as a priority in the EU working with Africa – ie: “recognising the value of research infrastructures in facilitating cooperation with Africa, promoting human capital development and addressing societal challenges, as noted in the Innovation Union and Europe 2020 Strategy”.

A final decision on the SKA host country is expected to be announced on April 4.

How to avoid a disappointing marriage Peter Griffin Mar 16


Wellington is abuzz with news of the super ministry, which was unveiled yesterday and will have major implications for a large number of public servants.

Some leaders in the science system have commented about the implications of the Ministry of Science and Innovation being bundled into the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Fellow Scibloogger, Professor Shaun Hendy, who is President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said the merger could have major benefits on the economic development front, but may marginalise important environmental and health research that didn’t have an immediate economic outcome.

Imergern a press release he is quoted as saying:

’We know that more scientific research is needed to grow industry, manufacturing and exports. But large components of the science system are concerned with the broader view, such as environmental and health science research, areas that do not often deliver an immediate payoff but which can be immensely valuable over longer time frames. Further change such as this is likely to add more uncertainty to funding structures and to science career paths, especially for younger scientists’.

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, also weighed in, saying:

’This reorganisation highlights the role that science and science-based innovation can play in a country’s development, be it through direct impact on greater productivity from enhanced services, advanced manufacturing and the primary industries, or indirectly through greater environmental sustainability and social development.

’It will be important that the new Ministry continues to give focus to the broader ways in which science advances New Zealand and I have no doubt that will indeed be the case.’

He points out also that the grouping of science, skills and economic development under one roof is not uncommon overseas. Indeed, the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was formed in 2009 as the result of a merger, one of several the coalition government has undertaken there in a drive to reduce national debt. Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Research, Science and Tertiary Education came into being officially just a few months ago. If anything stands out as unique about the merger here is that it did not include tertiary education.

It is too early to tell if these major science-business mergers in the public sector have worked particularly well, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that mergers in general are tricky to get right. This merger study Disappointing Marriage: A Study of the Gains from Merger is often cited, though looks at the the private sector.  In anticipation of a large amount of public sector merger activity, Grant Thorton and the Guardian newspaper in 2010 commissioned a survey of 600 directors and senior managers to gauge attitudes in the public sector towards mergers. In the report’s intro the authors note:

While few precedents exist and little practical guidance on successful implementation is available, there is copious evidence that reorganisation and restructuring often result in failure. This is not a problem unique to the public sector. Indeed, a review of the literature shows that between 50-80% of private sector mergers disappoint, with many destroying shareholder value.

Gramt Thornton’s advice for a successful public sector merger…

Plan — ensure that the appropriate people, skills and plans are in place, available to support implementation. Seek specialist advice (legal, financial) when appropriate to avoid any unintended consequences and costly mistakes.

•Cost — consider the full cost of implementation and ensure that a budget has been agreed and is in place before implementation begins.

• People — focus on the integration of organisational cultures and ways of working, as well keeping staff and other stakeholders informed throughout the process.

• Leadership — take the tough decisions early, making sure that the leadership team is in place to take ownership of the process and that clear incentives are in place for management to deliver change.

• Benefits — be clear about the benefits, risks, and timescales of change.

Some of the survey results from the report give an insight into the perceptions of mergers in the public sector and what leaders in the sector see as the desired and realistic outcomes of mergers.

merger fig 1

merger fig 2merger fig 3A fair amount of cynicism then in the higher ranks of public departments about the potential for positive change from merging Government departments, which may well say more about human nature than the merits of creating super ministries.

Is the SKA slipping through our fingers? Peter Griffin Mar 11


It was a bit much to expect the preliminary decision on who will host the next global “big science” project would remain under wraps.

And so the papers in Australia yesterday carried the news that the South African bid for the Square Kilometre Array, a $2.7 billion radio telescope project, is favoured over the Australia-New Zealand bid by the four-country SKA site advisory committee.

Confirmation of the news comes from Nature’s breaking news blog. South Africa’s favoured status doesn’t suggest the race is over for the Australians and New Zealanders, but the Sydney Morning Herald is probably correct in describing this news as a “crippling blow”. A final decision on who will host the SKA is expected by early April.

Cost has reportedly been raised as an issue that gave the Africans an edge:

The option to spread the array across eight nations in southern Africa was judged the better bid in part due to lower costs to power the telescope and transfer the massive amounts of data.

I’m no radio astronomy expert, but after sitting through several briefings from the CSIRO’s Dr Brian Boyle and others the SKA bid, I came to be convinced that the Aussies, with our enthusiastic support, had a pretty good technical proposal.

Then I randomly happened to bump into a delegation from the South African SKA bid at a science journalism conference in Doha, Qatar. They were in lobbying mode, dispensing compelling promotional material to journalists from a booth on the fringes of the conference and dominating a lavish banquet for conference delegates with an emotional and inspiring presentation on what winning the SKA would mean for the African continent.

They talked up the social development angle, the engineering, technical and scientific jobs that would be created giving opportunities to young Africans that would otherwise likely remain elusive to them. It was Africa’s chance to finally be a major player in international science efforts. They also suggested the technical bid was more innovative and cost effective as it would incorporate decommissioned telecoms satellite stations around the continent.

It was an impressive performance and i came away thinking that as good as the technical bid mounted by the antipodeans may be, this sort of lobbying would go a long way for the Africans. As the Sydney morning Herald notes:

Australia had been concerned European nations saw the project, likened in ambition to the moon landings or the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, as a type of development aid to boost poorer African nations.

But Australia sought to emphasise the scientific advantages of locating the array here due to the clear atmospheric conditions, with the former science minister Kim Carr arguing in 2010: ”There are better ways to sustain development, if that’s what your primary purpose is.”

I feel for scientists like Dr Sergei Gulyaev, a radio astronomer at AUT University who was integral to the New Zealand component of the joint bid. And I’m disappointed that the opportunities for research and developing the IT infrastructure required to collect and process the immense amount of data produced by the SKA may not be realised.

If we have lost it, it is likely not through lack of effort or technical expertise, but through outmaneuvering on some compelling political and social issues. With the project likely to cost tens of billions over the life of the array, this was never going to be a decision made on a scientific basis alone.

Still, it ain’t over yet – much more negotiating is expected before the final decision is made and even then there’s a suggestion that the SKA could still be shared. At the very least, New Zealand and Australia will be among the 20 countries undertaking research using the array once it is constructed.

Unfortunately, they may be required to take a longhaul flight to South Africa to do so…

Bitten by a katipo Peter Griffin Mar 09


The clinical correspondence section of the New Zealand Medical Journal often throws up rare and random cases that doctors around the country have had to deal with.

Back in 2010 there was the acupuncturist who pierced a patient’s lung. Then came the girl who swallowed her toothbrush and had to have it surgically removed. Now – the kayaker who was bitten by a katipo spider.

the katipo spider

the katipo spider

The katipo is a tiny, seldom seen spider that inhabits the borders of sand dunes and beaches the length of the country. It is also in decline which has seen them classified as Absolutely Protected under the Wildlife Act. The katipo – night stinger in Maori,  has attained legendary staus in New Zealand for its nasty though rarely inflicted sting.

In a country that has few species capable of delivering a venomous bite harmful to humans, the katipo stands out as one that can prove lethal to us. When you learn of its family lineage, you’ll understand why.

As Te Papa notes:

These spiders belong to the worldwide genus Latrodectus, more commonly known as the widow spiders. Members of this group include the Australian redback (Latrodectus hasselti) and the black widow (L. mactans) of North America.

All members of this genus share a similar reputation for inflicting unpleasant and sometimes fatal bites on humans. It is worth noting that only the female is capable of biting a person, as the male’s fangs are too small.

Given their timid nature and sparse numbers, katipo don’t tangle with humans often. However, a 29 year-old man who was recently ocean kayaking down the east coast of the North Island and setting up camp each night near the beach, got more than be bargained for when he set up camp near a katipo’s beach pad on Mahanga Beach, Mahia.

As the NZMJ reports:

While eating dinner in the sand dunes, he felt something crawling on his left calf, and brushed it off with his hand. Half an hour later a sharp pain began in his left calf, and over the next few hours it intensified, migrated up his leg, and into his groin and lower abdomen. During this time, he also developed chest pain, nausea and oral tingling.

Luckily the kayaker was able to raise the alarm and was treated by ambulance paramedics with morphine for pain, adrenaline for mouth tingling (possible anaphylaxis), as well as aspirin and nitroglycerin
spray for chest pain. The barrage of drugs weren’t enough however as the patient was still in great pain after treatment at Wairoa hospital. A toxicologist at the National Poisons Centre recommended administering red back anti-venom, which was duly done.

Symptoms rapidly improved after the initial dose of 500 units of anti-venom IM, but they did not fully resolve. A second dose was given 2 hours later, which further reduced his pain. Additional supportive treatment included phenergan (25 mg PO) and IV fluids (1 L of normal saline). He was observed overnight, and discharged pain-free the next day with instructions that should pain recur, further doses of antivenom can still be given.

The kayaker never saew the spider, but it is most likely a katipo was to blame because displayed classic signs of lactrodectism, a syndrome from spiders of the genus Latrodectus – redback, black widow and katipo included.

The signs and symptoms include local and systemic pain and sweating, hypertension and nausea. In more serious cases pulmonary oedema, seizures, heart complications and even death have been reported, although there have no recorded deaths from katipo bites in the last century.

The venom of Katipo spiders, as with redbacks, contains a neurotoxin called Alpha-latrotoxin:

From a South African scientific report on the venomous bite of the button spider:

In experimental animals [alpha-latrotoxin] causes nonspecific release of neurorransminers from presynaptic neurones and prevents re-uptake of transminers.  It causes a massive influx of calcium ions and release of transminers. The influx of calcium is not blocked by calcium channel blockers.  The toxic effect may be inhibited by earlier administration of concanavalin antivenom or by calcium-free subsrrate.8 Alpha-latrotoxin has proved a useful substance for experimental work on the action and identification of neurotransminers.

Rarely deadly

The NZMJ paper gives a useful case history of katipo bites:

Hornabrook, in his 1951 review of the early literature on katipo spider bites, found a total of 22 cases, including 2 deaths. Since 1951, there has been only one reported case of a katipo bite, involving severe myocarditis in a 22-year-old man, despite katipo spiders inhabiting coastal beach dunes around New Zealand.

So a threat that fails to live up to the katipo’s legendary status… but an interesting insight into the power of a tiny predator’s powerful bite.

What we learned at SCANZ Peter Griffin Mar 07

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Sciblogger Michael Edmonds has been busy writing up his reflections on sessions from the SCANZ conference that was held on Feb 22 and 23 at Te Papa Museum in Wellington.

scanz image mixSCANZ 2012 was the conference of the Science Communicator’s Association which is now into its tenth year of operation. The conference, which I presented at on the subject of science and social media, featured some excellent speakers and case studies on effective science communication projects.

We’ve posted recordings I’ve made from some of the presentations on the SCANZ website. Apologies for the less than great audio quality and the truncated Mark Quigley podcast.

My highlights included Quigley, fellow-Sciblogger Shaun Hendy and Steve Maharey.

If you haven’t come across SCANZ and you work in or around the science sector and are interested in how science is communicated, check them out.

Michael Edmonds’ posts:

SCANZ 2012: Context is the kingdom

SCANZ 2012: Calm and assured on the outside. Dr Mark Quigley

SCANZ 2012: How social is your science? Peter Griffin on social media and science

Science: are we doing it all wrong? Peter Griffin Mar 06


I have to confess to never having heard of the McGuinness Institute before reading their in-depth report into Government-funded science last night.

Science Embraced: Government-funded science under the Microscope didn’t come with the fanfare that recent reports like Powering Innovation did, but it will get people thinking about the science system and how well geared-up we are to undertake the innovation-based transformation of the economy the Government so eagerly seeks.

The report opens a can of worms – it identifies 30 “policy knots” holding back science and outlines a number of “myths” about the science sector in New Zealand, namely:

Myth 1: More New Zealand research leads to more New Zealand development.
Myth 2: New Zealand research informs New Zealand public policy.
Myth 3: Science ethics are embedded in science practice.
Myth 4: ‘Innovation’ is a useful term to drive the government-funded science system.

It suggests that the Crown research institute model of conducting publicly-funded science in New Zealand is wrong:

…over the last twenty years government has wrongly put its effort into creating a dynamic and creative government-funded science system, in particular through the establishment of CRIs. In contrast, we believe the role of government should be two-fold: to create a stable and evidence-based government-funded science system while at the same time working with the private sector to help make it more dynamic and creative.

It also presents what it suggests could be a strategy blueprint for the science sector:

strat info

If you are thinking, as I was, “who are these guys?”, there’s plenty of background on the website. Professor Sir Paul Callaghan penned the foreward to the report concluding:

This document provides the basis for a conversation that needs to be happening across New Zealand.

And I agree. You won’t agree with everything, but this report is the basis for some good discussion about the issues we face in improving our science system and the science-based outcomes we want for the country. I encourage you to read it and to leave her feedback on it in the comments below.

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