Archive 2012

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

GNS on quake communication – we can do better Peter Griffin Oct 23

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The convictions of the Italian scientists of manslaughter has more relevance here in New Zealand than you might think.

In the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, the scientific community and GNS Science in particular came in for scrutiny over how effectively it communicated the risk of earthquake activity in the lead up to September 2010, prior to the devastating February 2011 quake – and post quake as well.

While there was much apparent frustration on the part of the public that the seismologists hadn’t been able to “predict” the quakes – and Sciblogs has already conclusively established that no one, least not Ken Ring can perform that trick – much more subjective and open to interpretation is how warnings around risk were communicated to the public. Overall, I think most people would agree that GNS Science did a damn good job of telling the public what it knew – and didn’t know.

And as the statement below, released by GNS Science this afternoon suggests, the L’Aquila situation involved risk communication gone wrong. Nevertheless, should scientists be criminally liable if they misrepresent risk through poor communication?

The worst thing that could happen is scientists watering down their comments and hedging their bets to the extent that information is of little use to the public either way – neither reassuring, alarming or enlightening…

GNS Science: L’Aquila convictions about science communication, not about quake prediction

The manslaughter conviction of six scientists and a government official in the wake of the magnitude 6.3 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 is a complex matter involving legal, scientific, emotional and political aspects. It is also concerned with a very specific set of circumstances.

We understand that the court case was not about failing to predict an earthquake. Most people understand this is not possible with current scientific knowledge. There are no proven precursory signs such as gas measurement, micro-earthquakes, animal behaviour, electrical phenomena, or lunar phenomena that can predict earthquakes.

Despite decades of research into earthquake processes, the ability to predict earthquakes remains elusive.

The Italian case is really about the ineffective communication of science. In this instance, the scientists and government official were found to be deficient in the way they communicated the state of scientific knowledge and the possible threat of a large damaging earthquake.

The communication of risk and uncertainty is a challenging area for scientists. But to suggest that repeated small earthquakes in the area of L’Aquila were favourable because they unloaded seismic stress and reduced the chance of a big quake was unwise in our view. This, and other comments from officials, apparently inhibited many people from taking actions that might have saved their lives.

Equally, the L’Aquila area had a known history of earthquake activity and government officials could arguably have done more to prepare city infrastructure and the population for a large earthquake through measures such as setting appropriate building standards.

It is difficult to make any direct comparisons between L’Aquila and what happens in New Zealand. The roles and responsibilities of scientists and government officials are different in the two countries. However, the case does provide lessons about the communication of science and earthquake risks to officials and the public.

The most scientists can do is to estimate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a given region over a certain time frame such as months, a year, or longer. However, because natural events are inherently unpredictable, the limitations on the meaning of these probabilities need to be communicated clearly to the public.

GNS Science endorses the need for scientists to communicate meaningful information about natural hazards and probabilistic information to government agencies and the public. In this regard, for example, we update our aftershock probabilities for the Canterbury region on a monthly basis.

In relation to the Canterbury earthquake sequence, over the past two years GNS Science has undertaken hundreds of communications with a wide range of stakeholders via public seminars, briefings to government agencies, written reports, video and Youtube clips, plus many communications with the print and electronic media.

It is worth noting that in the past 60 years in Italy, only six of 26 major earthquakes have been preceded by foreshocks and many earthquake swarms have occurred without subsequent large earthquakes.

As foreshocks are usually not any different to ‘background’ earthquake activity, it is impossible to make a diagnosis that they are precursors to a major earthquake. Worldwide, most major earthquakes do not have precursory foreshocks.

Scientists must weigh up the evidence carefully and be cautious about the possibility of saying too little and delivering a false sense of security that could cause complacency, or delivering a false alarm that could cause panic.

There is a need for balanced information so government agencies and the public have the ability to make informed decisions about their actions.

Part of GNS Science’s core purpose, established by the Government, is to increase New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards and reduce risks from these hazards. As its role requires, GNS Science will continue to communicate measured and meaningful information about natural hazards to government agencies and to the public.

Scientists slam manslaughter convictions for geophysicists Peter Griffin Oct 23

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Scientists around the world have reacted with dismay to conviction of six italian scientists and a former government official on manslaughter charges. The seven were convicted after prosecutors successfully argued that public statements they had contributed to a false sense of security in the Italian city of L’Aquila ahead of the 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people.

L’Aquila following the earthquake

New Zealand scientists had earlier contributed to a letter signed by 5000 members of the international scientific community in support of the accused scientists  who worked for the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The lawyers of the scientists say the convictions will be appealed.

The Science Media Centre in London gathered comment from UK-based scientists on the manslaughter convictions…

Professor Bruce Malamud, King’s College London said:

“The scientists involved in the trial conveyed to the public the uncertainty and small probability of an earthquake occurring in L’Aquila based on accepted knowledge we as a community have accumulated over many years. The words ‘improbable’ and ‘unlikely to occur’ are often unfortunate translations from scientists of these small probabilities, as they convey to some in the public that a large magnitude event will never occur, when the scientists are trying to convey that there IS a possibility, just small and finite. But, that any year, there is a given chance of an earthquake of a given society or larger occurring. It would certainly benefit society if instead of prosecuting individual scientists for a perceived failure to communicate, it rather works on educating the average citizen, through the schools and examples, as to what is meant by uncertainty and low probability.”

Professor David Spiegelhalter, University of Cambridge, said:

“This bizarre verdict will chill anyone who gives scientific advice, and I hope they are freed on appeal. The lesson for me is that scientific advisors must try and retain control over how their work is communicated, and are properly trained to engage with the public.”

Sandy Steacy, Professor of Earthquake Physics, University of Ulster, said:

“If it stands, this verdict will have a chilling effect on earthquake science in Italy and throughout Europe. For instance, who would now be willing to serve on an earthquake hazard evaluation panel when getting it wrong could mean a conviction for manslaughter?

“And what will be the effect on the “impact” agenda? Here in the UK scientists are being challenged to ensure that their research has influence outside academia; this case suggests that such engagement can be very dangerous.”

Dr Roger Musson, British Geological Survey, said:

“This is a very sad business indeed, these are people I know, who were doing their best to give an accurate account of large earthquakes. It seems to be wrong that they should be prosecuted for offering scientific advice to the best of their ability”

“It will certainly make scientists less free in speaking out where perhaps their expertise are really needed”

“It’s not about them failing to predict earthquakes, it’s not about anything those 6 scientists said at the forum which they were asked to give their opinion, what those 6 scientists said was correct and any seismologists would support it”

Richard Walters of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences said:

“I am very saddened to hear about the verdict. The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.

“I have read the translated minutes of the meeting of the Grand Commission of High Risks on the 31st March, and the scientific information that was conveyed within that meeting was not inexact, incomplete or contradictory. It was clear, measured and scientifically accurate.

‘The prosecution have not distinguished between the different defendant’s actions or words. To be prosecuted for other people’s miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty.’

 Dr John Elliott of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences said:

‘This verdict is a sad end to a tragic series of events in L’Aquila. Earthquakes cannot be predicted, and these scientists should not even have been on trial accused of providing incomplete information, because it is unfair to have expected them to have provided an exact and complete warning of an earthquake in the first place – this is something which is not yet credibly possible for earthquake science.

‘This potentially sets back scientists’ desire and ability to engage openly with the public and authorities on the risks faced by society from natural hazards, particularly those involving seismic activity.’

Dr David Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Open University, said:

“I hope they will appeal. Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. The best estimate at the time was that the low level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game.”

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, said:

“Assuming that negligence and malpractice are not factors here then the prosecution, and now sentences, of the Italian seismologists comes as a considerable surprise. In seismology, as with many other branches of the pure and applied sciences, opinions are derived from observables and the application of experience and training. It is never the case that predictions are completely without uncertainty and any scientist will make this clear as well as an estimation of how accurate such predictions are.

“If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled. It is worth pointing out that many of the valuable contributions made by scientists such as penicillin, radiobiology etc have stemmed from the enquiring mind rather than absolute certainty of success.”

Paper 2.0: From flexible screens to smart solar cells Peter Griffin Oct 17

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Sir Richard Friend, the Cambridge University physics professor who has just completed a lecture tour of New Zealand, recently stacked all 78 volumes of the 2005 editions of Physical Review on the floor of his office.

Sir Richard Friend

“I probably broke all sorts of OSH rules,” says Sir Richard, whose towering wall of paper comprised 80,000 pages of journal papers submitted to the physics journal in that one year period. In 1962 the journal, which accounts for a decent chunk of the new peer-reviewed literature published each year in the field of physics, filled six volumes – 6,000 pages.

Sir Richard’s point – the published output of the science world has increased voluminously in the past few decades. The problem, as he sees it, is that most of it is crap.

“The scientific literature is an absolute minefield. Most of it is rubbish, worse it is boring.”

Not surprising then, that Sir Richard has set out in his career to discover things for himself, through trials and experiments that have resulted in dozens of patents,  at least three spin-off companies and successful partnerships with major consumer electronics makers.

The two golden eras of Cambridge, says Sir Richard, where the late 1600s when Sir Isaac Newton was carrying out his experiments in optics and gravitation and the 1920s when Sir Ernest Rutherford undertook several pioneering nuclear physics experiments. Sir Richard is the Cavendish Professor of Physics, a position once occupied by Sir Ernest, so he feels a connection to the famous New Zealander. Sir Alan MacDiarmid, another Nobel-winning New Zealand scientist, mentored Sir Richard and his team who were the first to make a polymer light-emitting diode.

Since that development in 1989, Sir Richard’s team has expanded on its work on polymer light emitting diodes and molecular semiconductors, developing technology used in consumer electronics through to solar power cells.

PLED screens

The 1989 discovery at the Cavendish Laboratory led to the founding of Cambridge Display Technology in 1992, a company set up to commercialise polymer light emitting diode technology. What are the advantages of P-OLED over more conventional LCD screens? According to Cambridge Display Technology:

Because P-OLEDs emit their own light, they are brighter, clearer, and have a virtually unlimited viewing angle. Their high contrast and wide dynamic brightness capabilities make them a better solution for night-time and daylight use. P-OLEDs also have a very fast image refresh rate that is maintained at low temperature, and are ideal for full colour video in TV, internet devices, PDAs and other ‘smart’ personal display products. Because P-OLEDs do not require a power-hungry backlight, they are energy efficient and are thinner and lighter weight.

Hence, CDT’s partnering with electronics companies like Phillips and Seiko-Epson. Now, OLED screens are starting to make their mark in the tech space as they become the screens of choice for smart phones and a new generation of TV sets. Video walls are the next step, with the technology underpinning prototypes for virtual wallpaper that can change colour and display images and video. CDT was bought by Japanese chemical company Sumimoto in 2007.

Flexible displays

Plastic Logic’s flexible screen

After pioneering ways to develop higher quality displays at competitive prices, Sir Richard turned his attention to developing screens that can flex. This is often seen as the successor technology to the current range of rigid tablets and smart phones on the market. The ability to roll up your phone or tablet is an attractive proposition.

“Why isn’t it in the shops? The investors might ask that too,” says Sir Richard who founded the company Plastic Logic to commercialise flexible screen technology.

“It’s taken a long time to get the yield up. But it is a market-ready technology.”

Plastic Logic specialises in producing flexible, ultra-thin plastic displays. What can they be used for? Initially, Plastic Logic wanted to get in on the ebook and tablet revolution, creating flexible versions of these types of devices – sort of like a Kindle that you can roll up. The displays were hot drawcards at trade shows around the world, but as this article points out, Plastic Logic had to rein in its ambitions somewhat as the market hasn’t developed as quickly as it expected.

When I asked Sir Richard last night when a mass market flexi-screen smart phone or tablet is likely to be on the market, he prevaricated. “It depends what the use is for,” he said taking my paper notebook and illustrating the problems that are presented to electronic circuits and display surfaces when you fold them into anything other than right-angles.

So the roll-up screen revolution is still a while away. In the meantime, Plastic Logic has shifted its focus to licensing technology to big electronics makers, much as CDT did from the start. But Plastic Logic has invested in a major factory in Dresden, Germany, which can churn out hundreds of thousands of screens each year.

Organic solar cells

The work on PLEDs, organic semiconductors and printing electronics onto thin sheets of flexible plastic led on quite logically to work in solar cell technology.

Pay-as-you-go solar

“Solar is not yet cost-effective,” says Sir Richard. That’s a symptom of the fact that solar cells are, by and large, still based on silicon, which is expensive to process as a hard sheet or wafer. The organic polymers get around that because they can be printed onto thin, flexible films.

“The great selling point is we don’t have to follow the rule book of silicon. The downside is we don’t get to follow the rule book of silicon.”

Recently, Sir Richard’s team also unveiled development of new hybrid solar cells that capture more of the sun’s light spectrum to boost the efficiency of the cells for energy production.

Thin, flexible solar cells effectively mean we  can move away from the bulking solar panels currently used to capture the sun’s energy for humankind’s use. Windows or the surface of buildings could be generating energy.

“Lots of people think its a smart thing to do,” admits Sir Richard. “The problem is the building industry is very conservative. They are worried about discoloration, what it will look like in 25 years. It’s still an unproven technology”.

The solar cell development has been spun off into yet another company – Eigth19.

“By the way, I’ve still got a day job in the university,” quips Sir Richard.

One Eight19 project is aimed at the millions of Africans who still rely on kerosene lamps to light their homes after dark. The Battery Box draws current during the day from a flexible solar cell panel so that it is fully charged by nightfall to supply LED lighting – and charge the odd cellphone or two. There are some 750 million “off-grid” cellphones in use in the developing world, so there’s a large market to tap.

The Battery Box also has a novel business model. Rather than asking low income households to pay the cost of the box upfront, users pay as they go – receiving a text message on their phone with a code to activate the box, making micro-payments as they go.

“It looks as though this might fly,” says Sir Richard.

“Its been trialled extensively in Kenya. Cheap light enables school kids to get more education.”

Sir Richard Friend toured New Zealand as the the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2012 Distinguished Speaker. This Listener piece has more on the science behind his innovations.

Your fingers for a cigarette? Peter Griffin Oct 16

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Of all the press releases that flow into my inbox, some of the quirkiest are from Waikato Hospital. Take today’s tale (I’m publishing the release in full below as it relates the story well).

What struck me in particular with the case of this unfortunate meat packer, is that Tamati would even consider losing the opportunity to keep two of his digits in order to have a cigarette. Can anyone relate to that? What would you give up two fingers for?

From Waikato District Health Board:

Tamati's dangling fingers Meatworker Tamati Parkes has a promise to keep – along with his ring finger.

The 38-year-old – a smoker since he was 11 – has vowed to stay off the cigarettes to honour a large medical team at Waikato Hospital who reattached his finger after a work accident earlier this month.

The stakes are high – if he resumes smoking he may well risk amputation of the finger.

“I want to do this for these beautiful people here. They’ve touched my heart and that is the motivation for me walking out of here and never touching a cigarette again.’’

Mr Parkes was using a hock cutter at the Silver Fern Farms meatplant at Waitoa on Thursday, October 4, when he sliced through two fingers. He arrived at the hospital with the left little and ring fingers hanging on by a bit of skin at the second joint.

Doctors wanted to operate to reattach the fingers. Mr Parkes wanted them off completely so he could have a cigarette.

“Three times I told them. I changed my mind when after three times of telling them [to cut the skin] they still wanted to save them.

“I didn’t want to waste their time and the money it costs to go into surgery.’’

After 20 hours of surgery by a team of about 20 and “amazing” care afterward, Mr Parkes was adamant his smoking days were over.

“In the time it takes me to have a cigarette it will ruin all their work,’’ he said, now knowing smoking narrows the blood vessels.

“These people have touched my heart and my mind.’’

Registrar Dr Duncan Bayne was one of the surgeons. “This has been a life-changing operation for Tamati. He has had his finger saved and has made some great ongoing lifestyle choices,’’ Dr Bayne said.

“It was certainly a technically difficult operation but by no means unique.  But being a smoker made the outcome less certain. Initially he wanted the fingers off but after we talked it through he said ‘I’ll give it a go’ and has quit smoking.’’

Life-changer: Tamati Parkes, second from right, with part of his plastic surgery team, from left, Registrar Dr Duncan Bayne, registrar Dr Yun Phua, and consultant Bulent Yaprak.

Nicotine replacement therapy was not an option either, so he has been going “cold turkey” for 12 days now. (Tues, Oct 16)

Consultant Bulent Yaprak, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon,

said: “Smokers have a tendency for the blood vessels to contract or spasm. But we were happy to give it a try with his undertaking to stop smoking.”

The operation team involved five surgeons, five anaesthetists and 10 nurses.

“So there was a lot of effort put into this by a lot of people,’’ Mr Yaprak said.

Registrars Dr Yun Phua and Dr Beryl Tan were involved from the outset and spent the first 14 hours with Mr Parkes, along with fellow registrar Tamatoa Blailock.

Using microsurgery techniques they were dealing with vessels less than 1mm in diametre.

Part of the little finger didn’t make it due to damage and vessel size, which became evident the next day. But all going well Mr Parkes’ ring finger should be fine.

It will remained wired in place for the next 3-4 weeks and then the hospital’s hand therapy team will take over rehabilitation with 3-4 months of work.

Mr Yaprak expected Mr Parkes to be back at work in 4-5 months.

One of the Waikato District Health Board’s health targets is to help people stop smoking, and 80 per cent of hospitalised smokers are provided with advice on quitting.

Trip notes: South Africa’s fracking dilemma Peter Griffin Oct 11

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This is the first in a series of science-related posts based on my recent trip through parts of South Africa and Swaziland. Follow up posts will look at rhino poaching, Swaziland’s AIDS crisis, the sustainability of game parks, the geology of the Drakensbergs and South Africa’s Square Kilometer Array project. Check out my photos from South Africa here.

The Karoo source: Wikipedia

From the convoys of coal trucks you meet on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to the open pit diamond mines at Voorspoed and the still-active goal mine near the pock-marked landscape of Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga, there are reminders everywhere of South Africa’s long history of mineral extraction.

In the excellent book Diamonds, Gold and War, Martin Meredith details how a vast stretch of land previously thought worthless and too difficult to tame, became the subject of Europe’s fixation when diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa in vast quantities. It’s fair to say that the country’s heritage is steeped in the culture of exploitation that flourished in the diamond mines of Kimberley – and also coloured by a fight between Briton and Boer for mineral wealth that had a devastating impact on the indigenous population.

Despite its long history of mining, or perhaps because of it, South Africans are wary of moves to open up a modern form of mineral extraction – hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. As I travelled around South Africa last month, the radio crackled with debate over the government’s move to lift a national moratorium on natural gas fracking in the Karoo – a massive semi-arid area covering much of South Africa’s Cape region.

Fracking ban lifted

In mid September, South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources lifted the moratorium on fracking it put in place in April 2011. Exploration for shale gas will now be allowed to proceed and companies such as Shell have signaled they are willing to invest billions if gas fields are allowed to be opened up.

For South Africa, developing natural gas production is a tempting proposition. After all, it is estimated to have one of the 10 largest reserves of shale gas in the world – 485 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Karoo Basin. South Africa is a net energy importer and around 90 per cent of its energy needs are met by coal or coal-derived fuels.

South Africa is one of the world’s top five exporters of coal, giving it a fairly dubious reputation when it comes to efforts to mitigate climate change. So natural gas holds out some hope of cleaning up South Africa’s soot-stained energy supply.

Energy companies are vigorously pursuing fracking all over the world to tap natural gas reserves after testing the technology to good effect in the US, where the process has been credited with accessing energy that produces less carbon emissions than coal. US carbon emissions are tailing off – all thanks to fracking.

But South African NGOs, environmentalists and in particular, the inhabitants of the Karoo, see things differently. Like a lot of people around the world, in the US, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe where companies are seeking to tap natural gas supplies, they are concerned that fracking – and more specifically, the chemicals used in the fracturing process, will pollute groundwater sources.

Water crisis

That’s a common worry in many countries, but South Africa is one of the driest countries on earth and already faces serious water shortages. Disrupting the fragile ecology of the Karoo through pollution of groundwater or sucking up large amounts of water for use in the fracking process, is out of the question for many.

The South African Government appears sensitive to the concerns, which are well canvassed in the report. Ultimately, however, it recommends…

…normal exploration (excluding the actual hydraulic fracturing), such as geological field mapping and other data gathering activities (e.g. hydrological studies) to proceed under the existing regulatory framework.

While South Africa’s natural gas supplies are potentially huge, the government notes that it is entirely unclear how much of the gas can be accessed.

Because of the uncertainty regarding the extent, or even existence, of economically producible reserves, any assessment of the potential economic impact is subject to enormous uncertainty.

However, making a moderately optimistic assumption that ultimately 30 trillion cubic feet will be produced, and using indicative pricing of US$4 per thousand cubic feet of gas and an exchange rate of ZAR8 per US dollar, the gross sales value would be almost ZAR1 trillion (around US$110 billion).

However, as with most countries other than the US, there isn’t the natural gas infrastructure or expertise in South Africa to support fracking – all of that will have to be inported from the US, meaning much of that potential revenue will be tapped off by drilling companies. There are other considerations. The Karoo comprises part of the site chosen for the Square Kilometre Array project, one of the biggest science instruments in development, which South Africa will receive billions in international funding to develop.

Astronomical interference

The massive radio telescope array depends on a low level of radio interference, which was part of the reason why South Africa beat out Australia and New Zealand to host the SKA. The South African Government notes:

Unmitigated radio-frequency emissions produced by the operation of heavy industrial equipment in shale gas exploration and production are expected to be detrimental to radio-astronomy operations.

Site-specific analysis will be a prerequisite for operations in areas defined by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act.

So the rewards are uncertain, the potential detrimental impacts serious. Which is why the South African Government has given a cautious go-ahead to explore the area to better get a handle on the gas available for extraction.

Ultimately South Africa is in the same boat as a host of countries – they want to exploit cleaner sources of fuel but are worried they’ll damage their environment in the process. The same story is playing out here in New Zealand where the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, is next month expected to publish an in-depth report on fracking, which certain local authorities have already banned.

While many of the concerns over fracking – such as the risks of it triggering earthquakes, have largely been dismissed by scientists, the safety of the process depends to a large extent on successful execution of the drilling process, the contained injection of water and chemicals and the removal of waste products.

What it comes down to is whether people -  South Africans, New Zealanders, or Americans, are willing to live with the risk of fracking going wrong. A leaking fracking well won’t be anywhere near as devastating as a Deep Water Horizon-style oil spill but with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of wells likely to be constructed in the Karoo, the risk of at least some groundwater contamination is considerable.

Factoring in South Africa’s precarious water situation and the country’s heavy reliance on dirty fossil fuels, the fracking debate is potentially more vexed in South Africa than in any other country when it is currently before regulators and environmental authorities.

Dominion Post unveils new weekly science page Peter Griffin Sep 03

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The concept of the newspaper science section pretty much died a death in New Zealand a few years ago as the squeeze on newsroom resources saw specialist sections ditched in favour of running science stories in the paper’s general or “A” section.

The Dominion Post’s new science page

Some saw that as a good thing, suggesting that cramming science stories into a “ghetto” in the paper meant it was just too easy to flick past that page and miss the science altogether. However, I’m of the view that devoting a fair amount of newspaper real estate to science each week is an acceptance of the importance of science to society and of the desire of the public to read about science-related issues.

That’s why I applaud the Dominion Post’s editor Bernadette Courtney for including a weekly science page in the re-vamped Dom. There will also be a technology page featured later in the week which I consider a similarly well-thought out move given the pervasiveness of technology in our lives.

The Dom’s science page will be anchored by long-time science columnist Bob Brockie who writes this week on Dr. Rebecca Priestley’s new book Mad on Radium – a history of “nuclear New Zealand”. The main piece is a thought-provoking wire story originally run by the Washington Post. Hopefully a good dose of local content will feature on this page – there are certainly enough science-related issues worthy of attention from the Dom’s own writers.

The move follows a push to expand and revamp science coverage, one that started shakily, but seems to have found a consistent stride. i expect to see similarly increased attention to science coverage from APN with the launch of the “compact” New Zealand Herald next week.

It’s great to see the media recognising the importance and relevance of science to society in these sorts of moves and its also confirmation that science stories rate well, something online editors have been telling us for years as they seek to supply a mix of articles that generate maximum eyeballs and clicks.


Innovation – how is our strategy looking? Peter Griffin Aug 21


The Government has released Building Innovation, the second progress report of six in its Business Growth Agenda.

The document gives a pretty good overview of what the Government has done and intends to do in its efforts to boost innovation in the economy. It also shows our major weaknesses when it comes to the R&D activities we undertake.

A few of the graphics from the report illustrate the problem well:

R&D – an international comparison

Our strengths and weaknesses compared to OECD

* Thin lime green line is the OECD average

Our export base

The report touches on many previously announced initiatives – the formation of the Advanced Technology Institute, the National Science Challenges, the boosted funding of public science and increased science and engineering tertiary course funding.

There’s a lot going on, but is it the right focus? Would Sir Paul Callaghan, whose name will grace the new ATI, be proud of this plan to boost innovation in New Zealand?

The science of Colbert’s “truthiness” Peter Griffin Aug 09

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TV Comedian Stephen Colbert has gained a lot of mileage out of “truthiness” the term he coined back in 2005 to describe that gut instinct that drives a lot of our decision making, that may well be divorced from the evidence, from reality.

Truth-seeker Stephen Colbert

Since then Colbert, his colleague John Stewart and others have delighted in highlighting examples of truthiness and the term has gained some level of official acceptance - it was the Merrian-Webster Dictionary word of the year in 2006.

The concept of truthiness has also piqued the interest of academics, including PhD student Eryn Newman, from the School of Psychology at Victoria University. In a series of experiments, she and her colleagues at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, (yep, another Victoria) have examined whether “non-probative information” – words or images that don’t really prove anything one way or another, can have an impact on truthiness:

In this paper, we use the term “truthiness effect” to refer to a category of phenomena in which—when making rapid judgements about the truth of a claim—non-probative information of a stimulus or situation causes people to shift towards believing that claim.

In four different experiments Newman and colleagues found that people are more likely to believe claims are true, regardless of whether they actually are true, when a decorative photograph appears alongside the claim. The paper is being published this week in  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

From the Victoria (NZ) press release:

Ms Newman and her colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, “the liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn’t reveal if the claim was actually true—such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was.

The researchers conclude:

We view the effects reported here not as qualitatively new phenomena but rather as lovely new exemplars of a growing family of effects pertaining to inferences (perhaps unconsciously made) regarding the mental generation of hypothesis-consistent evidence.

We describe the photo effect as “lovely” for two reasons. First, compared to other “truthiness-inducing manipulations” with which we have experience, the effect of non-probative photos seems to be quite robust. A robust effect is, of course, an essential tool for theory development, and we hope that future research will use the photo manipulation to explore the specific mechanisms underlying its effect.

Second, we believe it is just plain cool that the same manipulation that can lead people to think that an obscure celebrity is alive can also lead people to think that celebrity is dead.

So… bottom line – what to manipulate someone into s way of thinking – include a photograph. It doesn’t matter what photograph. Pretty much any random photo will do. It looks like TMZ and its stable mates are onto it…

This body of research suggests that photos might boost the truthiness of claims by bootstrapping the generation of related ideas and images, or by creating an aura of plausibility simply because people find photos to be credible.

Study abstract

When people evaluate claims they often rely on what comedian Stephen Colbert calls truthiness, subjective feelings of truth. In four experiments, we examined the impact of non-probative information on truthiness.

In Experiments 1A and 1B, people saw familiar and unfamiliar celebrity names and, for each, quickly responded “true” or “false” to the claim “This famous person is alive” or (between subjects) “This famous person is dead.”

Within subjects, some names appeared with a photo of the celebrity engaged in his/her profession whereas other names appeared alone. For unfamiliar celebrity names, photos increased the likelihood that subjects judged the claim to be true. Moreoever, the same photos inflated the truth of “Alive” and “Dead” claims, suggesting that photos did not produce an “alive bias,” but a “truth bias.”

Experiment 2 showed that photos and verbal information similarly inflated truthiness, suggesting that the effect is not peculiar to photographs per se.

Experiment 3 demonstrated that non-probative photos can also enhance the truthiness of general knowledge claims (Giraffes are the only mammals that cannot jump). These effects add to a growing literature on how non-probative information can inflate subjective feelings of truth.

Christchurch’s chance to be innovation central Peter Griffin Jul 31

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The blueprints for Christchurch are out and by and large, they represent an ambitious and progressive vision for the future of our second biggest city.

Interestingly, they also account for innovation and health precincts that could make Christchurch, already a major centre of excellence for electronics and high value manufacturing and with significant medical research activities, a major hub for R&D and medical research.

The innovation precinct

The proposed innovation precinct builds on EPIC (Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus) which has been funded by the BNZ and the Canterbury Business Recovery Trust and has rent-free land provided by the Christchurch City Council. EPIC will have about 30 hi-tech businesses located there in a similar move to the tech cluster taking shape on the Auckland waterfront at the Wynyard Quarter. This seems like a very good idea – having a stable of hi-tech companies located together close to the city centre. What else will form the innovation precinct? Everything is up in the air, but there are some obvious players in the mix, not least of which the yet to be established Advanced Technology Institute.

the innovation precinct’s location in the city

Here’s the vision statement from the blueprint document:

An Innovation Precinct based adjacent to the South Frame on the High Street Gateway is desirable. It will facilitate the establishment of a technology-based industry and research precinct within the central city, attracting new business and employment opportunities in high-value industry sectors. Development of the Precinct should consider appropriate opportunities to incorporate remaining heritage features of the area.

The precinct is proposed to be adjacent to the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology due to the synergies that exist and the leverage that can be obtained by linking up activities.

The innovation precinct could be expanded beyond the area that is indicated on the map, depending on demand from innovative businesses and research organisations. The innovation precinct also encompasses the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus (EPIC) temporary site, known as the EPIC Sanctuary. This is a private sector initiative to bring displaced innovative businesses together in the city centre.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, CERA and CCC (including Canterbury Development Corporation), in partnership or cooperation with industry, will facilitate the creation of the Innovation Precinct, including developing a business case, and possibly securing tenants,

and contracting property developers and designers. The innovation precinct will be well designed to stimulate collaborative activity.

The Innovation Precinct could draw on skills and knowledge developed at Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury. It can also leverage the seven of the eight New Zealand science-based Crown Research Institutes that have facilities or headquarters in the region and city including institutes specialising in agriculture, plant and food research, land management and industrial research.

The health precinct

Slightly more intriguing is the proposed health precinct, which is imagined as a centre for health research incorporating Christchurch hospital, presumably the Otago School of Medicine Christchurch campus and the private sector. In fact, the private sector is the project lead on the precinct proposal, suggesting extensive partnerships between private health companies and public health and medical researchers. What sort of partnerships does CERA envisage?

the planned health precinct

According to the blueprints:

The proposed Health Precinct would include…

• Allied health – partnerships between industry and clinicians

• Medi-hotels – where patients and families can stay while receiving outpatient or specialist care

• A knowledge campus – providing clinical education and training

• A research campus – public and private research activities

• Private and public services delivering health care in and near the new ambulatory care hub

It all sounds rather ambitious – patients checking into medi hotels, researchers working with drug companies on clinical trials, medical training centres. Much of this is done already, but developing a precinct to service this type of specific activity seems like a good idea – if it can gain critical mass and attract the support of the private sector.

the proposed health precinct

Christchurch was a hub of innovation in New Zealand before the quakes – from the electronics cluster with Tait at its centre, to NZi3 and the Hit Lab at the University of Canterbury, to the software start-ups sprinkled around the city centre, it always was one of the places to be for aspiring hi-tech entrepreneurs.

The quakes have given the city a unique opportunity to build on this capability, to establish areas of the city suited to innovative research and development in the tech and health sectors. I can’t think of a better way to help revitalise Christchurch and make it a place Cantabrians – and others, want to live and work.

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