Archive Environment and Ecology

On climate change and fire-breathing dragons Peter Griffin Apr 01

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Given the recent climate-related discussion here on Sciblogs, paper from Nature seems highly appropriate…

Wed 1 Apr – Embargoed until 12:01 NZT:
Climate change to wake sleeping dragonsAn Australian and UK study has reported that increasing temperatures will result in an explosion of fire-breathing dragons around the world. The researchers say that dragon numbers declined during cool periods in history such as the so-called Little Ice Age but are likely to make a comeback as the planet warms. This suggests that New Zealand could become a targeted food source, due to its abundant supply of dwarves, elves and hobbits. Australian expert comments available. New Zealand newspapers have permission from the journal to run this story in print on the day the embargo lifts, with the strict proviso that nothing can appear online until after the embargo lifts. 

Yes, they even produced a paper on it…

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 1.43.19 pm

Ominously, they conclude:

Climatic conditions are rapidly reaching an optimum for breeding dragons, and it is only a matter of time before the neurotransfer spell loses its efficacy completely. Further research into fireproof protective clothing is highly recommended — as is an avoidance of honorific titles.

It nearly fooled a few journalists too!

Sponsoring species – is it worth it? Peter Griffin Mar 25

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From the Yellow-eyed penguin to the Kakapo, companies are keen to associate their brands with efforts to save some of our iconic native species.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin  Source: Wikipedia

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Source: Wikipedia

Is this funding worth it? Hell yes! As Department of Conversation spending on preserving biodiversity comes under pressure, private money is increasingly being sought to support conservation efforts. We need these public-private partnerships more than ever.

This Dominion Post article from 2012 article outlines the impact on the Kakapo Recovery Trust that was expected in the face of the New Zealand Aluminium Smelters withdrawing its funding after 22 years. NZAS appears to have hung in there with its sponsorship and this year will round out 25 years of support of the Kakapo Recovery Trust. BNZ has put its money on the Kiwi with Operation Nest Egg. Cheese maker Mainland supports the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust while Dulux, in addition to sprucing up DOC huts with a fresh coat of paint, sponsors Kea conservation efforts.

The list goes on – you can see the goodwill associated with efforts to preserve our “charismatic” species.

But while the rockstars of the natural world bring the sponsorship dollars in, new research shows that funding conservation efforts tightly around the needs of individual species may miss out on wider benefits to other species. That is, there may be ways to save two birds with the same dollar…

A paper just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B looked at the economics and efficiency of sponsoring flagship species. (view the abstract and press release on Scimex)

New research led by Australian and New Zealand scientists suggests that privately sponsoring the conservation of charismatic ‘flagship’ species can also help save other species from extinction, putting into question the notion that this approach to conservation is biased and inefficient. The researchers looked at the conservation actions for 700 of the most threatened species in New Zealand and argue that while other species’ conservation also improve from funding ‘flagship’ species, it could be boosted further if these funds were “optimally allocated among all threatened species”.

The lesson therefore for how to get the best bang for buck from conservation sponsorship – for biodiversity in general is, according to the authors:

1. use objective criteria for baseline funding of threatened species conservation, and use private funding for flagship species conservation as efficiently as possible to maximize shared benefits with other species. If private donors are made aware of the ancillary gains from their flagship species sponsorship, this may encourage further donations or new partners.

2. Encourage donations to a broader suite of flagship species, to maximize possibilities for efficient sponsorship through shared actions with other species. As noted by Verissimo et al., using a relatively large ‘flagship fleet’ can potentially appeal to a larger pool of donors. Our results show that a ‘flagship fleet’ can also allow additional flexibility to increase the efficiency of allocating conservation funding. If donors wish to sponsor an individual species, they can be encouraged to sponsor species whose conservation actions result in the greatest additional biodiversity gains. If donors are willing to sponsor a ‘flagship fleet’ of species, the money can be used to fund the specific actions with the great- est additional biodiversity gains.

3. Explore the possibility of encouraging private funding for general biodiversity goals. Although private funding for flagship species can help to conserve biodiversity, in general, it can only supplement, not replace, funding based on objective criteria. If such supplemental funding can be used in the most efficient manner possible, the greatest biodiversity gains can be achieved.

At the Science Media Centre we approached  Dr Wayne Linklater, Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University Wellington and a contributor here at Sciblogs, for comment:

“Private conservation funding in New Zealand is growing, and growing rapidly. Thank goodness for it, because we need it.  Public funding for conservation is not enough to halt further species declines and extinctions, let alone recover those species already in trouble.

Policy diversity begets biodiversity – the more tools we can apply the greater variety of good outcomes that are possible.  Private funding of iconic species is a new and increasingly used tool in New Zealand and through it outcomes will be achieved that would not otherwise be possible.

The 10 species in the article which  benefited from private-public partnerships are just a few, perhaps only a quarter to a third, of NZ species that might attract private funding. The potential is for rapid economic growth in privately funded conservation.

Consider also that many of the programs to conserve NZ’s iconic species are inefficient. They are expensive and success is unlikely. Indeed, those iconic species will probably be reliant on a high-cost conservation investment for a very long time to come. Where, however, their iconic status can also attract private funding, they can at least improve investment and outcomes for other species.

Although the authors do not consider it, we shouldn’t also discount the potential for private funding of habitat, landscapes, and ecosystem functions. Some with cash to spare will be attracted to the idea of supporting many species at once – communities of plants and animals, landscape vistas, or particular services that the ecosystem provides, like animal pollination or drinking water quality. We know that conservation at such larger scales, when it is possible, is more efficient at conserving biodiversity. I expect private funding for those things would result in even larger gains in plant and animal conservation than those described by the authors who focussed only on privately funding of individual species.

“But we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that any one policy will do the job on its own. Private funding for conservation is just one tool in our toolbox and we need to learn how to use it well and when it is best used. This is our next challenge.

For many however, private funding will distort what would be regard as sensible conservation priorities. The debate about what is important and what is not will continue. And it should. The debate is important. The author’s however, go some way to demonstrating that private funding is a help, not a hindrance. Nevertheless, not all private funding is the same. In time, conservationists will also be challenged to structure funding and  discriminate amongst private funders to ensure that conservation is not prejudiced by a few elites.

In particular, when considering private funding for conservation we should not forget the enormous amount of conservation in New Zealand done by individuals and communities that is not quantified in money terms but is nonetheless, also privately funded conservation. It is New Zealanders conserving by ‘doing’ rather than just by ‘donating’ and I expect that if we quantified it and its outcomes, they too could be large. Fortunately, we now have a Dept. of Conservation that is focussed on supporting community conservation to benefit from that grass-roots doing and giving.”

Top ten weirdest science stories of 2014 Peter Griffin Dec 19

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It was another big year for science capped off with the successful Rosetta mission to land a probe on a comet. But as usual, there were also plenty of quirky science stories that captured our attention too. My colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre rounded up a list of the some of the quirkiest.

Sorry hipsters, we hit peak beard

In April, Australian researchers delivered a cutting blow to hairy male hipsters – theirresearch found that beards are only attractive to women if they’re a rarity. The bald truth is that, when too many people conform to bristly non-conformism, it quickly becomes a turn-off. But there was good news for men who’ve resisted rejecting their razors in the current sea of beards – a smooth chin is considered more attractive when everyone else is sporting facial fuzz. The researchers said their findings reflect patterns seen in other animals – females tend to find rare features attractive in potential mates.


There was a bigfoot-step forward in yeti research

July brought abominable news for mythical animal fans; a detailed analysis of 30 tufts of hair from around the world thought to be from yetis, bigfoot and other extraordinary ape-like creatures showed they all came from ordinary, decidedly non-mythical animals. Ten samples turned out to be bear hair, while others were from dogs, cows, horses, and there was even one from a person. However, some of the results were out of the ordinary; two of the samples – from the mountains of India and Bhutan – didn’t match any living animals, but did match an extinct species of polar bear thought to have died out around 40,000 years ago.


Eeeeeuuuugh! A snog transferred 80m bacteria

Watch out under the mistletoe this year – in November, Dutch researchers took bacterial samples from the mouths of 21 canoodling couples and found that a ten second snog transfers as many as 80 million bacteria. They also noticed that partners who kiss nine times a day or more share similar communities of mouth microbes. But don’t be too grossed out – a regular game of tonsil tennis is good for our health, priming our immune systems to fight off any infections we pick up from our partners later, they say.


‘Women’ with willies made us wince

Scientists announced the first example of an animal where the female has a ‘penis’ and the male a ‘vagina’ – the bizarre Brazilian cave insect Neotrogla – in April. During sex, the aggressive female penetrates a vagina-like opening on the male’s back with a barbed penis-like organ, grappling the couple together. You might want to cross your legs for this next gory detail – the pair bond so tightly that, when separated by the scientists, the male’s body ripped apart, leaving his genitals behind. And, to top it all off, these females put male lovers to shame – mating can last up to 70 hours. I think we all know who wears the trousers in that relationship.


Life imitated art as TV’s Dr House cured a real-life patient

In February, German doctors who were stumped by a tricky case were struck by some remarkably familiar symptoms while watching an episode of US TV medical drama ‘House’. Their patient was suffering from seemingly inexplicable severe heart failure, as was the fictional physician’s. The medical misanthrope diagnosed his patient as suffering from cobalt poisoning caused by a metal hip implant, and when the real-life doctors replaced their own patient’s metal hip implant with a ceramic one, he rapidly recovered.


Robopenguin rolled into our hearts

In November, researchers introduced the world to a rather cute remote-controlled rover disguised as a baby penguin, designed to monitor real penguin populations in the Antarctic. The bogus bird certainly had the real ones fooled – even notoriously shy emperor penguins tried to communicate with it and let it join a crèche of chicks. The pretend penguin will allow scientists to monitor the effects of climate change on wild populations without stressing the birds out or disrupting their natural behaviour.


The oldest fossilised sperm was found, and it was enormous

In May, scientists revealed supersized sperm fossils they’d found in Queensland, which are at least 16 million-years-old. The gargantuan gametes are ten times as long as the animals that produced them – crustaceans called ostracods – and 20 times the length of human sperm. The scientists used X-rays to figure out how the giant sperm fit inside the bodies of animals a tenth of their size, but just why the sperm are so large remains a mystery.


Female hurricanes were deadlier than males

Rudyard Kipling probably wasn’t thinking about the weather when he penned his poem‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’, but in June, US scientistsclaimed it may be true of hurricanes. Comparing the death tolls of hurricanes with male and female names between 1950 and 2012, they found the females have, on average, killed more than the males. Further experiments suggested the assumption that males are the more aggressive and dangerous sex may lead people to underestimate the danger posed by female hurricanes. The result is a reluctance to evacuate, increasing the number of fatalities. But the research was not without its critics – other scientists said the facts that all hurricanes were ‘female’ until 1979, and that average fatalities have generally decreased over time, rendered the results meaningless.


The oldest human poo revealed Neanderthals made friends with salad

In June, scientists announced the results of picking through some 50,000-year-old fossilised faeces they stumbled upon while studying an ancient Neanderthal fire-pit in Spain. Analysing the crystallised crap, which is the oldest human poop ever discovered, they found evidence of plant matter as well as meat, revealing that our ancient cousins enjoyed a side of berries, nuts and other vegetables with their mammoth steaks. The petrified poop also revealed the Neanderthals were infested with various types of parasitic worm, enough to make a modern human very sick indeed.


Scientists found a shocking way to induceInception-style dreams

In May, German scientists said they’d found a way to induce lucid dreaming – the state in which you are conscious during a dream, aware you’re dreaming, and able to control the dream’s plot. Delivering a mild electric current to the frontal and temporal brain regions of 27 dreamers altered their neural patterns. A particular type of brain wave activity called gamma activity increased, and the subjects became aware they were dreaming, and were able to exert greater control over the dreamworld.


Flu claims Antarctic researcher Peter Griffin Aug 04

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A lot of people in the scientific community are struggling to come to terms with the death of Antarctic historian and museum curator Natalie Cadenhead, who died at Christchurch Hospital on July 24 of influenza.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 9.49.17 amNatalie was only 47, a fit and healthy tramper as this report from The Press explains.

She didn’t get the flu vaccine, because, her husband George Rogers explained, she had allergies to certain medicines:

“Reflecting now, it probably would have been good to have her immunised, but being healthy and with her allergies, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

I didn’t know Natalie, but plenty of colleagues did. Natalie spent several seasons on the ice at Scott Base. Her research interests included aspects of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, the TAE/IGY base buildings and Antarctic science. She was also responsible for the Antarctic object based collection at Canterbury Museum and was associate editor of Antarctic, the journal of the New Zealand Antarctic Society.

She was, I’m told, also one of the original members of the Science Communicator’s Association.

In a fitting tribute, friends and colleagues flew the New Zealand flag at Scott Base at half mast.

Natalie’s death is a reminder of the fact that the swine flu virus (H1N1) killed a number of healthy people when the pandemic hit in 2009.

This Science article from 2010 reports on research by paediatrician Fernando Polack of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee that suggests a reason why swine flu hits the young and healthy particularly hard:

After looking at lung samples from 75 young and middle-aged adult victims of the 2009 pandemic, they found an uncanny amount of a protein called C4d, a molecule that normally binds to antibodies to form virus-fighting immune complexes.

When antibodies fight a virus under normal conditions, Polack says, they call in C4d, a compound that can destroy viruses. In the case of flu, most people had antibodies to seasonally circulating influenza strains, but these antibodies were a poor match to the pandemic virus. Although they recognized the virus and latched on to it, they weren’t able to stop it from replicating, says Polack. When the antibodies and the C4d formed the immune complexes, Polack speculates that the system spiraled out of control. Instead of punching holes in the viruses, the immune complexes punched holes in the victims’ veins and flooded their lungs with water and plasma. “The immune system gets fooled into activating this particular immune defense, and it causes harm,” says Niranjan Bhat, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not part of the research.

This was less likely to happen in young children and infants, with few or no antibodies against seasonal flu strains, says Polack. And elderly people had antibodies to the H1N1 strain that circulated in the United States until 1957—a descendant of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918—which are known to be a much better match to the 2009 H1N1 strain; so the flood of C4d generally didn’t occur in them. When the team looked at lung samples from victims of the seasonal flu, they found only trace amounts of C4d, which seemed to confirm their suspicions.

Natalie’s death is a good reminder of the importance of getting vaccinated in time for the flu season each year.

Below is a video that feature’s Natalie and Sir David Attenborough talking about Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans.

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Where should the science funding dollars be going? Peter Griffin Jul 24

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A few weeks ago I headed up the hill to Victoria University to hear science and innovation minister Steven Joyce launch a document called the “Draft National Statement of Science Investment 2014 – 2024“.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 9.48.43 amIf you are a scientist in New Zealand, or involved in the science system, this should be very important to you. The document lays out the priorities for funding, as the Government sees them, for the next decade of public investment in science and innovation.

It covers things like the National Science Challenges which are just getting off the ground, Callaghan Innovation, the Primary Growth Partnership, the Marsden Fund, the Centres of Research Excellence and business R&D grants. These are all things the Government is currently doing, and which it will continue to use as tools for investment in the next decade. Some of them are also things I hear a lot of scientists grumbling about for various reasons.

Everyone seems to have a different idea about how best to leverage science dollars for the good of the country. For instance, at the launch event, one scientist told Joyce that if the Government wanted to make a real difference with its science investment it should double the size of the Marsden Fund which is funded to the tune of around $52 million a year. Joyce said that may well be true, but the case would have to be well made because it would require the funding being taken from some other area of science investment.

Well, at the moment we have the chance to make that case or any other case for science investment. The “draft” in the document title means that the strategy for the next decade isn’t yet set in stone and everyone has until August 22 to give feedback on it.

The feedback form is available here - fill it out and get it back to MBIE to have your say.

In addition, next week I’ll be chairing a panel discussion here in Wellington on the future of New Zealand science funding featuring some pretty experienced and opinionated people giving their views on where science funding should be invested.

I’ll be asking them plenty of questions – if you can’t make it along (see details below), leave your questions in the comments below or send them to be privately via the contact form and I’ll make sure to put them to the panel…

Shaping our science system, a SCANZ panel event

Wednesday 30 July | 5.30pm, 6pm start | members $10 non members $20

Royal Society of New Zealand 11 Turnbull Street, Thorndon Wellington
RSVP to 

Does investment in science influence society?  Can we really expect it to meet New Zealand’s economic, social, environmental and cultural needs? Is it the level of investment or the areas in which the investment is made?

On 22 August consultation closes on the government’s draft National Statement of Science Investment, a document that sets the scene for a discussion about New Zealand’s science funding strategy for years to come.  What does this mean for scientists and the average New Zealander?

Join SCANZ for a panel discussion that will examine the issues from a range of viewpoints.

The Government is seeking a wide and open discussion about the shape of New Zealand’s science system, so come along and be part of the conversation.

Professor Adam Jaffe, Director Motu Economic & Public Policy Research  

Wendy McGuinness, Founder & Chief Executive McGuiness Institute 

Dr Ian Ferguson,  Departmental Science Advisor at the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries, with a joint appointment with Plant & Food Research. 

Panel chair: Peter Griffin, co-founder of Sciblogs and Science Media Centre manager  

Further details online at

Want to lower your carbon footprint? Eat less beef Peter Griffin Jul 23


When it comes to industries that are seen as damaging to the environment, the dairy sector is usually the prime target in New Zealand.

Source: PNAS

And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the production that powers our largest export industry is having an increasingly apparent impact on the land and our waterways.

The scale of dairying in New Zealand makes the problem blindingly obvious. Less is heard about the smaller New Zealand beef industry, but beef production actually uses more land, water and greenhouse gases than dairy, as a new study in PNAS revealed this week.

The researchers found that producing beef required around 28 times more land than production of eggs, poultry, pork and even dairy, 11 times more water and resulted in five times more greenhouse gas emissions. That’s right, the four categories of production had a similar level of resource use and greenhouse gas production, but beef was way out ahead.

Now, the research relates to the US market where the majority of cattle destined for the burger joints and barbeques of America spend the latter part of their life in feedlots where  they are fed a mix of roughage, grain and supplements. The processing those feedstocks require use up resources. But even cows that are fed completely on open pasture through their lives are more resource-intensive to produce, say the researchers:

Even when focusing only on agricultural land, beef still towers over the other categories. This can be seen by excluding pasture resources and summing only crops and processed roughage (mostly hay and silage, whose production claims prime agricultural land that can be hypothetically diverted to other crops). After this exclusion, 1 Mcal (megacalorie) of beef still requires ≈15 m2 land, about twofold higher than the second least-efficient category.

When you compare beef production to staple crops like rice and wheat that many people depend on for the bulk of their diet in some countries, the picture is more dramatic. Compared to those crops, meat requires 160 times more land and 11 times the water to produce.

Here in New Zealand, we don’t have feedlots, though farmers do supplement their cows feed with things like palm kernel, which is quite resource-intensive to produce.

According to Beef & Lamb New Zealand:

“The total greenhouse gas footprint was calculated at 2.2kg CO2-equivalents for a 100g portion of  beef. Broken into segments, this equates to 90.3% for the on-farm stage, 2.1% for meat processing, 4.2% for transportation, and 3.3% for the consumption phase.”

The carbon footprint of grass-fed beef is generally lower than feedlot beef, but the fact remains that beef production is dirtier than anything else, even dairy production in terms of land and water use and greenhouse gases. Therefore, if you want to help the environment, say the authors, cutting down on your beef consumption is one of the most effective things you can do. Animal products in general are quite wasteful of resources compared to edible crops but again, beef i sway out in front.

According to another study:

“…the loss of 1 kilogram of boneless beef has the same effect as wasting 24 kilograms of wheat due to inefficiencies in converting grain to meat. The authors illustrate how food waste in the U.S., China and India affect available calories, noting that reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people.”

Beef farmers in New Zealand and the US point out that beef yield and efficiency is improving. But beef production will remain more resource-intensive than just about anything else, an issue that will become more important as pressure on land and water increases further.

Some local reaction via Adrien Taylor’s 3 News piece

Analysis of the research from our colleagues at the UK Science Media Centre


Tangaroa gets an overhaul Peter Griffin Jul 11


NIWA’s research ship Tangaroa has spent the last few weeks in dry dock at the Devonport Naval Base where it is receiving an overhaul that will set it up well for many more voyages of discovery.

But the inclement weather in Auckland has hampered efforts to get a fresh coat of paint onto Tangaroa’s bottom.

Said NIWA’s operations manager John Hadfield:

“Fortunately the antifouling paint on the under hull (the part that sits under the water) was in very good condition and required minimal preparation before re-coating. However, above the water line, on the topsides, we get marking and minor damage to the coatings from, wharves and scientific gear that is deployed over the side. This requires remedial work to be carried out.

“We are still hopeful that weather conditions will allow us to get a full coat on the blue topsides before Tangaroa departs the dock on the 15th July.

“We have had a paint expert from Altex Coatings calling the shots on when we can paint to ensure it bonds and then lasts. If the wind gets up we can’t spray paint and even on a fine day, if there is high humidity we can’t paint.”

Along with a new paint job and other maintenance, a $1 million sub-bottom profiler is being mounted in a pod on Tangaroa’s hull. The expensive piece of equipment, known as TOPAS PS 18, allows scientists to identify marine sediment layers up to 200 metres below the sea bed.

Tangaroa leaves dry dock on July 15 before heading for the Tasman Sea.

credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit: Dave Allen, NIWA

credit: Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


credit Dave Allen, NIWA

credit Dave Allen, NIWA


Giant squid dissection – livestreaming now! Peter Griffin Jun 19

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This is fascinating… AUT researchers examining a giant squid… live streaming now!

Science communicators are better scientists Peter Griffin Jun 13


A couple of days ago, I received a flurry of LinkedIn messages – people congratulating me on six years managing the New Zealand Science Media Centre. Some automated LinkedIn alert had flagged an anniversary I had overlooked. 

Well, those six years have flown by in what has amounted to the most productive, rewarding and interesting period of my career.

Our three person SMC team in Wellington has worked on all sorts of stories – from the Christchurch earthquakes to the swine flu pandemic, supported hundreds of journalists covering science and even created Sciblogs, which has given science blogging a bit of critical mass in New Zealand.

I’ve learned a lot about the science itself, how to communicate it and watched the bottom fall out of the industry I know and love – the media.

Michelle Dickinson

Michelle Dickinson

The key conclusion I’ve come to after six years in this business is that when it comes to effectively communicating science and improving the public’s understanding of it, the biggest difference can be made by the individual scientist committing to science communication.

As Fiona Fox, the founder of the original and hugely successful Science Media Centre in London has put it: “the media will do science better when science does better media”.

On this I totally agree. There isn’t much we can do about disappearing newspaper advertising or cutbacks in newsrooms – this is bigger than us. There’s little we can do to halt the blurring line between independent editorial and vested interests, or the proliferation of pseudoscience across the internet.

But against all of that, scientists can do one thing – commit to becoming better communicators. By understanding the changing needs of the media, recognising the priorities and preoccupations of society, adopting the tools and techniques that are essential to making sure a message has cut-through and resonance, scientists do themselves, their area of science and society a huge favour.

Which makes it really depressing then to see tweets like this…

I’ve heard variations of this from, generally younger scientists, who are committed to science communication. For those who make it integral to their scientific careers, there is often a lot of pushback and cynicism from other scientists, superiors and their institutions. On one level this is understandable – if a scientist is blogging, touring schoolrooms or making TV shows, they have less time to spend in the lab doing research. But increasingly, progressive institutions and senior scientists are grasping the fact that good communicators make for better scientists.

Doing all of that other stuff, which fundamentally requires you to articulate what your life’s work is all about, enhances how you go about answering the big questions in your research. I’ve seen plenty of examples of this with scientists we have worked with. Their communications work has opened doors to scientific collaboration, allowed them to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems in different ways and allowed them to flesh out their research proposals more convincingly.

The majority of them are as prolific as their colleagues who don’t do much science communication – they publish as many papers, given as many presentations to their peers. That’s because true science communicators build communication into everything they do and the really smart ones know how to re-use and repackage their communication for maximum effect – an abstract becomes a blog post which becomes a media interview which becomes a public talk. There will always be those scientists who are not comfortable communicating – their place is the lab and many of them will only pop up when their research is published and generates a blip of media coverage. But for the average scientist, it doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario and it shouldn’t be because good communicators are better scientists.

So it was nice to see Dr Dickinson, whose Nano Girl blogs are syndicated here on Sciblogs, receive the following reply on Twitter…

Brian Cox

Brian Cox

I bet that made Michelle’s day!

But you don’t have to front a BBC show to make an impact as a science communicator. Most scientists will do numerous small things that collectively boost their confidence and their ability to articulate their science and its relevance to society. It is deciding to do a five minute interview with a small community radio station because it gives you an opportunity to practice explaining your science live on-air. It is composing 500 words and submitting it to the local newspaper op-ed page when your area of science is in the news – and writing it in a way that the comment editor can’t resist running.

Getting Science Media SAVVY


If you are keen to improve your science communication, particularly for media interaction, check out our two-day intensive Science Media SAVVY courses. We have course coming up in Hamilton and Auckland with new ones being held around the country all the time. New funding from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has allowed us to lower the price of these courses to $595 + GST per participant which is fantastic value for money. The workshops are restricted to 12 participants so scientists so its an intimate setting with plenty of one-on-one help. The additional funding has also allowed us to offer two scholarships per workshop for post graduate students to attend for free.

We will, in the coming months, also be offering short SAVVY courses on various aspects of science communication.

Register your interest in a SAVVY course in your region or apply for the upcoming workshops. And more importantly, undertake to do whatever you can to communicate your science more effectively, however small that undertaking is.

Is CRI science being twisted to commercial ends? Peter Griffin Jun 12


UPDATED: We all know that our Crown Research Institutes carry out a lot of commercial work for clients, in fact they are encouraged to do so in the interests of returning a dividend to the Crown which funds them.

But are those commercial relationships influencing the scientific advice that scientists give?

Back in April, Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy claimed this was exactly what was happening in an explosive Science Express talk at Te Papa. Well, it was explosive because I live-tweeted the talk, including some of Dr Joy’s remarks, which attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter. A few of Dr Joy’s tweets:

This morning Radio New Zealand’s science reporter William Ray had a story about that approach to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which hosts the Science Media Centre which I manage. I’ve had nothing to do with internal discussions of the issue, but the radio report revealed that two letters have been written to the RSNZ by Wendy Pond of the Manu Waiata Trust and Bryce Johnson, chief executive of Fish & Game. The letter from the former apparently claims CRI science has been slanted towards the commercial interests of clients, with NIWA singled out for specific mention. The letter from the latter calls on the Royal Society to take a lead in exploring how conflicts of interest can best be handled in the context of giving expert advice.

UPDATE: See bottom for the letter from Bryce Johnson to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which was obtained under the Official Information Act.

At the heart of the issue, is scientific advice given over the environmental impact of the Ruataniwha Dam, a controversial irrigation project in the Hawkes Bay that is looking shaky after several major backers withdrew their support.

If NIWA or any other CRI is “giving biased evidence to support commercial contracts”, as the Radio NZ piece suggests, that’s a huge scandal. I haven’t seen the letters sent to the Royal Society, so don’t know the details of the allegations. However, NIWA has responded indignantly, with CEO Jon Morgan saying the suggestion was an “insult” to the scientists employed there. Association of Scientists President Dr Nicola Gaston was interviewed and said she had “no evidence” this sort of manipulation of science was going on. But she pointed out that CRI scientists don’t have the same level of academic freedom as university scientists.

So do we have a problem here? Fresh water quality management and monitoring is hugely controversial. Is this simply a case of various groups and parties disagreeing with advice given by CRI scientists on a nuanced and complex issue or is there something more sinister going on?

Scientists as friends of the court

Bryce Johns from Fish & Game raises an interesting question in the Radio New Zealand interview – could we develop a system in New Zealand where independent experts can be called by a court of law to give neutral evidence on matters? He describes this as a “friend-of-the-court” system. This regularly occurs in other parts of the world, but is not without its own problems.

Take this example to do with Obamacare and contraception schemes. The US Supreme Court is looking at whether corporate employers with religious objections must include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Various groups have taken it upon themselves to provide friend-of-the-court expert briefs in an attempt to influence the case. The science, not surprisingly, is interpreted differently. Indeed, the science involved in the specific questions is complex, but the Supreme Court won’t be making a ruling based on an interpretation of the science anyway.

What may work better to avoid duelling experts in the Environment Court and other courts, could be for the court to seek independent expert advice from a neutral body – say the Royal Society or the Association of Scientists. In some European countries, such as Norway, this is often what happens. The Court appoints expert witnesses to give evidence. But this also has its issues, as was discovered with the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

In that case appeals against the evidence generated by the court-appointed expert witnesses led to additional expert advice being sought by the court. This piece on The Conversation outlines the differences between the inquisitorial system of seeking expert advice in Norway and the adversarial system used in New Zealand and Australia, where both parties in the case will employ their own experts to give advice that helps their respective cases.

An expert witness is recognised by the court as a person who can give an opinion in a specific area of knowledge that is outside the understanding of an “average person”. Psychiatry and psychology expert witnesses must have relevant qualifications, training and experience to be recognised by the court as having such expertise.

Within Australia’s adversarial legal system, the defence and the prosecution will usually engage their own experts, even though the expert should not be an advocate for either party (defence or prosecution).

Usually, the expert will conduct an independent assessment and provide a report outlining the basis for his or her opinion. The report should state the facts or assumptions on which the opinion is based, and should not omit or fail to consider material facts which may contradict the opinion.

The expert should also make it clear when a particular question or issue falls outside his or her area of expertise. If the expert also considers there is insufficient data available, this must be stated to indicate that the opinion is no more than provisional.

In Norway, similar principles apply to being an expert witness, except that under their inquisitorial legal system, the court appoints the expert. (In an “inquisitorial” system, the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, whereas in an “adversarial” system, the court acts an impartial umpire between the prosecution and the defence.)

I don’t see the use of expert advice in legal cases changing any time soon in New Zealand.

And our research institutions will continue to be encouraged to pursue contracts with the private sector – this is not unusual in science anywhere in the world.

But when it comes to CRIs giving advice is there evidence of bias based on them protecting their commercial interests? Do you have examples of where scientific advice has been manipulated or changed to suit the needs of industry?

Fish & Game letter

Good afternoon Di,

Fish and Game New Zealand is a significant participant in various Resource Management Act related statutory procedures, for which we engage a range of ‘expert witnesses’. The recent Board of Inquiry case involving the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawke’s Bay is a case in point, where Fish & Game engaged many experts and lead their expert evidence before the BOI.

Separately, we are encouraging members of the science community to become more intellectually visible in the public arena, so that the wider public might benefit from their knowledge, become more informed, and generally better appreciate the role of science.

One complication that emerges from this is that a confusion, and even conflict, can develop between the common notions of being an ‘expert’ and being an ‘advocate’, with scientists becoming very edgy about being branded the latter, which I fully understand.

So I am wondering if the Royal Society would serve the science community well by taking the lead and holding a workshop/seminar to discuss how this developing conundrum might best be handled, as I suspect it is escalating across all areas of scientific endeavour and concerning a growing number of ‘experts’.

Such an event could also traverse the situation where scientists become employed by organisations with a particular purpose, and how they might be able to retain their ‘expert’ status given the partiality of their employer. Another is the impartiality of scientists employed by CRIs – ‘Crown Research Institutes’ but increasingly being viewed as ‘Client Research Institutes’.

If you would like to discuss this further please do not hesitate to contact me.



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