Archive November 2012

Scibloggers clean out science communication awards cupboard Peter Griffin Nov 29

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I spent an enjoyable morning at the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes where the glow of last night’s premiere of The Hobbit was obviously still buoying attendees – particularly the Prime Minister, who at one stage suggested there were “cauldrons of opportunity” in science.

Professor Shaun Hendy

The PM’s Science Prizes spell the end of the science awards season, following the New Zealand Association of Scientists awards and last week’s Royal Society of New Zealand Research Honours awards. They also represent the most lucrative of the prizes, with one million bucks going to the recipients collectively.

Full details about the award-winning scientists, science teacher and remarkable student winner Helen Ng are here.

But it was particularly pleasing to see Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy pick up the PM’s Science Media Communication Prize. Professor Hendy divides his time between Industrial Research and Victoria University and until recently was Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute. This is Shaun’s second win – he picked up the Callaghan Medal for science communication at the RSNZ awards last week.

Aside from his blogging at A Measure of Science, Shaun has been prolific in the media. He is a regular contributor on Radio New Zealand and is often quoted in science-related news articles, TV and radio pieces. I learnt this morning that the book he is publishing next year will be called Get off the Grass, (great title!) and will carry on some of the ideas first explored in Sir Paul Callaghan’s well-received and through-provoking book Wool to Weta.

Both awards are well deserved and hard-earned. Like Sir Paul, Shaun is able to relate science to the big picture issues facing the country. He understands the needs of journalists. And he isn’t reticent about standing up for what he believes in. Amid the controversy this week over Dr Mike Joy’s comments in the New York Times about the state of our environment, Shaun, in his capacity as President of the Association of Scientists issued a statement defending Joy and attacking a heavy-handed Herald editorial about Joy.

Standing up for science

“The clear statement is that the potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation, and economic benefit of ‘big-spending American tourists’ outweighs the need for truth in  public debate,” the NZAS release stated. “This is an issue that the Association takes very seriously, and emphatically refutes criticism of Dr Joy on this basis.”

I had a chat with Industrial Research Ltd. CEO Shaun Coffey at the PM’s prizes this morning, a man who has been instrumental in giving Shaun the time and freedom to engage with the media. Coffey is running a very successful experiment in science communication himself, having amassed nearly 130,000 followers on Twitter. His updates and links to interesting articles on R&D, science, economics and agriculture are addictive reading for me.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Picking up the NZAS Science Communicator’s Award was another Sciblogger, Dr Siouxsie Wiles who blogs at Infectious Thoughts. Currently you can see Siouxsie fronting a national TV ad campaign for the National Science Challenges. She is also active on the media front and has been successfully testing out crowd funding of scientific research through the Rockethub platform.

What is great to see is that we have a growing number of scientists who are skilled communicators, willing to engage with the media, conscious of the news agenda and the interplay between science and the issues of the day and proactive about getting the science out to the public. Others such as Dr Mark Quigley, last year’s PM’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize winner, and Professor Chris Battershill have quickly had to hone their media skills when demand for their expertise put them in the media spotlight. In the case of Quigley, it was the Canterbury earthquakes, for Battershill it was the Rena oil spill.

The better scientists are at communicating their science, at relating its value to society the better the public’s understanding of the importance of science will be. And those who recognise that science communication is an ongoing endeavour, an investment, rather than an obligation tied to the need to promote research findings or secure funding, will ultimately better serve the people who are indirectly paying for their science.

Mike Joy isn’t a lone voice – just a loud one Peter Griffin Nov 27


Of all the questions raised by the controversy surrounding scientist Mike Joy’s quotes in the New York Times – and the heated response to them, this is the most important: can Dr Joy back up with evidence his claims about the parlous state of New Zealand’s environment?

He can and he has.

Dr Mike Joy

From the peer-reviewed journal PLoS to the Ministry for the Environment’s own reporting on the state of water quality in New Zealand, the literature suggests we have reason to be concerned about the health of our waterways.

How this impinges on the way we market our country to the rest of the world is arguable, but this scientist at least has a credible argument – backed up by evidence, to suggest it undermines our prominent claims to be 100% Pure.

It is not as if Mike Joy is a renegade among scientists, a lone voice in the freshwater science community. He shares the same concerns as many other freshwater scientists I have spoken to. He is just more forceful at putting his views across, more proactive at seeking media exposure. You could say that he is a very effective science communicator.

The only reason Mike Joy has attracted the ire of the Prime Minister and others, is that his comments about New Zealand’s environmental record have travelled so widely – carried on BBC Hardtalk last year and via the New York Times last week.

But you don’t have to look far to see that many of Dr Joy’s concerns are mirrored by his colleagues.

Views mirrored

Take this round-up of scientific commentary we at the Science Media Centre gathered last year in response to the Government’s release of a package of policy initiatives for regulating water quality and usage in New Zealand.

Here’s an excerpt from Dr Joy’s commentary:

“This national policy statement continues that trend of policy containing lots of nice words and lofty ideals but no teeth or standards, so this is a huge opportunity lost and we can expect more of the same the further degrading of the ‘clean green’ myth.”

Here’s what Angus McIntosh, Professor and Mackenzie Foundation Chair in Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury, had to say:

 “The need to halt declines in freshwater biodiversity values is critical. The current situation is really quite grim. In a recent survey of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains we have found over 80% are either moderately or severely polluted. For Canterbury urban waterways (pre earthquake), the situation is even worse”.

And Professor David Hamilton, Bay of Plenty Chair in Lakes Management & Restoration at Waikato University and President of the New Society Freshwater Sciences Society, weighed in with this:

“Over the past decade or so New Zealanders have witnessed accelerated degradation of many water bodies in response to diffuse nutrients derived mostly from agricultural sources.

He goes on to say… (full comments here)

“In the interests of ‘100% pure NZ’ we cannot continue along this pathway.”

We have gathered similar commentary from climate scientists highly critical of New Zealand’s emissions mitigation policies and the watering down of the Emissions Trading Scheme. None of them have been slammed for giving their honest, evidence-based views. I presume the only reason why they haven’t is because they haven’t been quoted by a major international news outlet.

Science is supposed to inform public debate – and policy making. That’s called an evidence-based approach. If we write off the work of scientists because the results of their research is inconvenient or because they take advantage of their right to academic freedom to highlight their findings, we are just paying lip-service to science. That’s a dangerous place to be when we face many complex issues that will only effectively be tackled by using good science.

International comparisons

Some will argue that Dr Joy is cherry-picking data and peer-reviewed journal papers to reinforce his arguments. But that is a facile argument – a smoke screen. True international benchmarks of environmental performance show we, not surprisingly, are clean and green compared to many other countries, but our performance is slipping and when you drill down into the details, indicators around freshwater resources, Dr Joy’s area of interest, are indeed concerning.

The Yale Environmental Performance Index 2012 looks at a wide range of countries and ranks them on a range of performance indicators – from air quality to land use to the quantity and quality of fresh water.

In the rankings, New Zealand comes in in 14th place out of 132 countries – between Iceland and Albania. Not a bad result. But Yale also issues an EPI Trend ranking – looking at how we’ve progressed over the past decade. Using this indicator we are ranked 50th, between Armenia and Slovenia.

If you look at the specific commentary on New Zealand, you can see the reasons why our performance is slipping. Where we are losing ground relative to other countries, as the graphic below shows, is in the areas of agriculture, forestry and water resources.

Source: Yale EPI 2012

These types of international comparisons are not perfect, but collectively there is enough evidence to suggest that while New Zealand is relatively clean and green, we are struggling in key areas that could in the longterm see us falling behind other countries overall in environmental performance.

This is what Dr Joy and his colleagues are pointing out and it is their responsibility to do so.

Science journalism that MATTERs Peter Griffin Nov 19

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Over the weekend I paid 99 cents for a quality piece of long form science journalism that I downloaded and read on my iPad.

Members sign up for 99c a month

Who published it? The New Yorker? Atlantic Monthly? National Geographic? No, the article is the first of what will hopefully be a long series published online by Matter, which bills itself as “the new home for the best in-depth and investigative writing about science and technology”.

The piece Do No Harm? – 8,000 words long, was about Body Identity Integrity Disorder. People with the condition struggle with the urge to have a limb amputated and either attempt to do the job themselves – or seek out doctors willing to do it for them. It isn’t the first time the subject has been covered in-depth. But the piece is a fascinating and emotive read and would happily sit in the publications I mention above.

But author Anil Ananthaswamy, an established science writer who would likely have had editors interested if he’d pitched the story idea to major magazine titles, decided to publish the story through Matter. In doing so, he is taking a punt on a new outlet for science journalism that competes with the establishment but exists precisely because of the dwindling space for this type of journalism in the mainstream media.

There are several reasons why Matter has a fair chance of succeeding – the same reasons why its founders raised US$140,000 on Kickstarter when they only set out to raise US$50,000. The pedigree of the editorial talent is very good as Carl Zimmer points out in this backgrounder. The platform is flexible, attractive and easy to use, particularly for Kindle owners.

But most importantly, the founders seem to understand what drives people who consume and pay for long form science journalism. Such people appreciate depth and quality and are willing to nurture an outlet that will deliver it over the long term.

Matter invites you to join as a member, signing up to pay a mere US99 cents per month. In return you get invited to online Q&As with the authors as well as Matter events and get to pitch story ideas you’d like to see investigated. How this will work out is yet to be seen – it employs an open source system for filtering ideas from members which Matter is calling “Editorial Board”. I love this level of engagement and as the membership grows I’m looking forward to being involved in the ideas-generating process.

Matter also has the advantage of being supported by a range of high-level names from the world of science journalism and also the tech sector. Part of the buzz created by these people explains part of Matter’s success on Kickstarter.

It is early days for this online magazine. And what it is setting out to do is anathema to the race-to-the-bottom, twitch-stream media populating news websites. But, hell, we need this type of thing, which taps into the crowdfunding model in a way that could make it sustainable.

As Zimmer points out:

If Johnson and Giles can continue to publish stories of this caliber, they will make an important contribution to the world of science writing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ascend to Politico-like heights of commercial success and pose a threat to traditional outlets. Politico does some good reporting, but every day it also serves up the political journalism equivalent of McDonald’s french fries–addictive little bits of information about who said what today in the DC hothouse.

I’m looking forward to Matter’s next release and wish the founders and contributors well in what I consider to be one of the most exciting ventures in science journalism to get underway in recent times.

Trip notes 2: Swaziland’s AIDS crisis Peter Griffin Nov 01

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This is the second in a series of posts on my recent visit to South Africa and Swaziland. Part 1 is about South Africa’s fracking dilemma.

The border town of Matsamo is anything but inviting as you wait in the immigration queue on your way into the mountain kingdom of Swaziland.


The day we arrive it is raining heavily. Well-dressed workers stream across the border from Swaziland into South Africa where the jobs are more plentiful. We appear to be the only tourists going the other way. A rusty, buckled sign welcomes you to Swaziland beyond which lies, on one side of the road, a row of tin shacks.

The roof of the building on the other side of the road has long since fallen in, and the walls threaten to follow at any moment. A skinny cow stands in the middle of the road disrupting the traffic.

In the immigration room a vending machine dispenses free condoms, but the supply has run out. It’s that last feature of Matsamo that is perhaps most symbolic of Swaziland’s problems. Consider the following statistics about Swaziland:

- Prevalence of HIV as a percentage of the population aged 15-49 is 25.9%

- Life expectancy is 48.7 years

Inept AIDS response

Swaziland responded to the first cases of AIDS in the country back in the mid 1980s, by all accounts, with earnest good intentions. But as the infections took hold and AIDS spread through the population  the country’s efforts to control it were shown up to be ineffective at best, incompetent and irresponsible at worst.

In 1999, Swaziland’s King, Mswati III, declared AIDS a national disaster. But the King, who took the throne in 1986, has presided over shocking corruption, nepotism and reckless spending of the country’s meagre funds. In 2008, some of his 13 wives went on a  lavish shopping trip to Las Vegas – while two-thirds of the population live in abject poverty. The king has banned journalists from taking photos of his luxury cars, unimpressed by the bad press this generates aboard, where he likes to travel in style to wine and dine with world leaders.

Mswati’s reign is characterised by all the usual traits of tinpot dictatorships, but his sins are worse because of the extent of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS charity Avert has this to say of Mswati III:

Swaziland’s King has been criticised for his “blatant disregard” for the factors contributing to the AIDS epidemic in his country and living a lavish lifestyle, while his country is in such a dire situation. When the King chartered a plane to take his 13 wives on an international shopping trip in 2008, hundreds of Swazi women protested, shouting “we need to keep that money for ARVs!”.78 79 In 2010 Prince Mangaliso, chairman of the king’s advisory council, claimed pharmaceutical companies were exaggerating the HIV/AIDS epidemic to “keep their businesses afloat”.80

It appears that stronger action from King Mswati and his government is needed in order to dramatically cut HIV transmission rates in one of the world’s worst AIDS epidemics.

Currently there are widespread programmes within the country – ranging from free condom distribution to HIV testing, that are funded by UNAID and other agencies. But entrenched cultural norms are hindering success. People would rather not know that they have HIV than have to face up to it and condom use is disliked among sexually active males. A drive to circumcise tens of thousands of Swazi boys could help reduce the rate of HIV infection, but coverage will have to increase significantly.

Two-thirds of Swaziland’s population lives in abject poverty

Poverty exacerbates crisis

The AIDS problem has been exacerbated by hard economic times hitting the country. Most of Swaziland’s 1.2 million people are either subsistence farmers, work in the sugar cane or forestry sectors or low-paying textile industry

The country’s capital Mbabane exudes a semblance of normalcy – it looks much like any small provincial centre you’d see in South Africa, and when we passed through, a fair amount of building construction was underway.

But the economy is not in good shape, according to the International Monetary Fund:

Swaziland’s financial problems stem from a sudden fall in revenue payments from the Southern African Customs Union but critics of the regime also blame poor economic management and widespread corruption because of the power wielded by Mswati and his inner circle.

In a country where two-thirds of the population live in poverty and one in four adults are HIV-positive, it is extremely vulnerable to the financial squeeze which has had a large impact on basic health and education services.

It has been more than a year since the IMF first advised Africa’s last absolute monarchy to slash its public wage Bill and overhaul its poorly managed economy.

Asian money is starting to flow into Swaziland – as it is in other parts of the country, with Taiwanese investors set to build factories and create jobs for up to 3,000 Swazis.
The country’s economic woes make a direct contribution to the AIDs crisis. While anti retroviral drugs, which keep HIV sufferers alive longer are widely available in Swaziland, their efficacy relies on patients having enough food to take the drugs with. Research from around Africa shows that HIV sufferers who are also struggling to find enough to eat won’t get the protection from antiretrovirals they need.

In a study in Northeastern Uganda, consuming only one meal per day and being dependent on caregivers for food were risk factors for ARV non-adherence [21]. In Zambia, the belief that ARVs must be taken with food led individuals to skip doses when they could not access enough to eat [18]. Lack of food was also among the key barriers to ARV adherence in a qualitative study from South Africa

Malabsorption can occur if antiretroviral agents are taken improperly with regard to meals or if they are taken with certain other drugs or herbal remedies. Some commonly prescribed drugs can cause dangerous drug toxicities if they are taken by patients who are also taking certain antiretroviral medications.

The Guardian adds:

A UN survey of 1,334 households in November 2011 suggested that one in four were worse off as a result of shocks such as rising food prices and loss of work. This resulted in reduced food consumption, with some families skipping meals for an entire day.

The report showed households with HIV-positive members were at greater risk and relied more on cheaper meals or skipped meals altogether. A Swazi MP claimed he had encountered impoverished patients mixing cow dung with water to fill their stomachs in order to be able to take ARVs.

Despite their seemingly overwhelming problems, the Swazis I met were friendly and generous. On the outskirts of Mbabane, we stopped at a crafts market to pick up some souvenirs. It had been raining for days, so the traders hadn’t seen many tourists through. They met us eagerly displaying their carved statues of elephants and lions and beautifully illustrated earthenware. I got back onto our tour bus with a bag full of trinkets that probably cost me $20 all up. In Swaziland, that’s the equivalent of three weeks’ wages for many.

A crafts trader at Mbabane, Swaziland

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