SciBlogs

Archive Science and Society

What people are saying about the Science in Society strategy Peter Griffin Jul 30

1 Comment

Yesterday saw the much-anticipated release of the Government’s National Strategic Plan for Science in Society, which lays out a series of activities and priority areas for better engaging New Zealanders with science.

I was part of an expert working group that MBIE consulted, a group that was mainly made up of education experts, which indicates the strategy’s core focus – children and their relationship with science or the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, education and mathematics).

That isn’t my area of expertise, so it was fascinating to listen to the experts debate the best way to get kids interested in those types of subjects in the hope that they will become the “curious minds” we need to do creative things later in life.

My job was to give input about engaging the public, particularly via the media, which is still the main channel where people get information about science – though increasingly new media and social media are the first port of call.

The Science Media Centre gets a mention in the report which I’m happy about. We’ve got some big plans for later this year which the Government, our funder, thankfully likes the sound of.

But here is what I told Sir Peter Gluckman and the rest of the panel – the media’s appetite for science is actually very good – as long as the science is presented in a compelling way and fronted by confident and media savvy scientists.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 6.39.01 pm

If we want better coverage of science by the media and therefore better understanding of the big science related issues by the public, the science sector needs to improve its game. Too many big science-related issues come up that, for a multitude of reasons, aren’t well articulated by the scientists that are best positioned to explain them.

Too many times we at the Science Media Centre are left scrambling around trying to find people to talk to the media on issues that are of vital importance to society, the environment and the economy.

So what I’ve been telling the Government is that the media will do better science coverage, when science does better media.

That means scientists need the support and encouragement of their institutions to speak out, to engage in science communication. They need to be incentivised – and required to do so, as happens in the US and Australia, where taxpayer-funded grants often come with science communication requirements and incentives.

We need to see a culture change in our universities and CRIs where the efforts of scientists to communicate their work and have input on the big issues when society most needs it, are recognised to a greater extent.

They need training and access to resources. There needs to be recognition of the fact that scientists may spend less time in the lab but more time making TV shows, leading citizen science projects and fronting to the media on controversial science subjects. Institutions need to set clear guidelines so that scientists who are engaged in commercial work, but are also funded by the taxpayer, are free to speak about the fundamental science they are working on.

I speak to too many scientists who are being told that being a scientist and a science communicator are not mutually compatible – that their career progression depends solely on the papers they publish, the science they do. Excellence in science will always be key, but the acceptance of that science by society and therefore the funding of it, depends on the ability of the science sector to engage the public in it. The SMC’s submission to the PBRF Review outlined exactly that argument and called for greater recognition of non-academic outputs, such as science communication.

The bits I like the sound of…

I’m pleased to see that the strategy actually does address a lot of these things.

- It calls for the Royal Society of New Zealand to develop a code of practice for public engagement for scientists. This should clarify the expectations on scientists and the rights and freedom they have to talk about their science.

- It allows for access to public engagement training for researchers – the sort of support and up-skilling that will allow scientists to more confidently communicate their science.

- It outlines a requirement for public engagement in the National Science Challenges – I was pushing for mandatory science communication requirements in National Science Challenges contracts, and evaluation of the science communication outputs. The strategy language is woolly: “Public research funding bodies will review and update the knowledge translation expectations for research contracts, and assess the current state of publicly relevant knowledge transfer…”

- A key aspect is the development of a participatory science platform – think a network of citizen science projects and tools that engage kids, their families and communities and scientists.

- There will be a contestable fund for outreach activities, particularly for hard-to-reach audiences.

- Initiatives to increase the profile of Maori researchers and their work.

I’m happy to see all of those planned activities.

The devil is in the detail, obviously. To what extent, for instance, will they result in the culture change in scientific institutions that promotes the type of science communication I outline above? Fluffy language in a National Science Challenge contract about “efforts to communicate the science” won’t necessarily cut it.

And the big question – how much funding will there be for all these activities? The participatory science platform in particular will not be cheap to do properly.

Until we know the answers to those questions, its hard to know how effective the strategy will be.

But what we have here is similar to strategies overseas, such as the Inspiring Australia initiative which had some really good aspects to it. Every country is trying to figure how to better engage society with science.  This is a pretty good plan, the details of which will hopefully clarify how much resource will be available and the requirements placed on the funded parties.

I asked people on Twitter what they thought of the strategy – here are some of the responses…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Naked Scientists hit New Zealand Peter Griffin Jul 25

No Comments

If you like listening to science podcasts, you’ll love the live shows that are coming up in Auckland and Wellington featuring Dr Chris Smith who leads the merry  band of scientists and journalists known as The Naked Scientists.

naked-scientists

Chris was an early pioneer of science podcasting, starting The Naked Scientists in 1999 as a podcast and radio show. It has grown in popularity to become of the most listened to science podcast in the world.

Now Radio New Zealand National, and BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘Naked Scientists’, in conjunction with AUT University and the Science Media Centre, are producing two lively one-hour shows in Auckland and Wellington based on the Naked show.

Dr Chris Smith and Radio New Zealand’s This Way Up host Simon Morton will be co-hosting the shows in front of live audiences in the two cities, showcasing the best in New Zealand science and technology to the world. There’ll be interviews with some of New Zealand’s leading scientists and live demos.

The Auckland show will be broadcast live on Radio New Zealand National, and material from both shows will be featured on BBC Radio 5 Live, and The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here’s more about The Naked Scientists:

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 12.17.36 pmThe Naked Scientists are a media-savvy group of physicians and researchers from Cambridge University who use radio, live lectures, and the Internet to strip science down to its bare essentials, and promote it to the general public. Their award winning BBC weekly radio programme, The Naked Scientists, reaches a potential audience of 6 million listeners across the east of England, and also has an international following on the web.

Each week, listeners of all ages and backgrounds tune in on a Sunday evening to hear creator Dr. Chris Smith, together with his entertaining sidekicks, interview renowned scientists and researchers from all over the world and take science questions on any subject live from the listening public.

In addition to the radio show, the group has organised Naked Science at Borders, a public lecture series enabling the community to attend informative presentations given by some of the UK’s most celebrated scientists. They have also put together this website to allow the radio show, lectures, and much more to be accessible world-wide. According to Dr. Smith, the basic goal of the Naked Scientists “is to help people enjoy science as much as we do and, at the same time, to have fun.”

Both events are free and open to the public, but seating is limited at both venues. So please register using the links below to ensure your seat.

Auckland
12-1pm Saturday 9 August 2014
The Wave Room, AUT University, Sir Paul Reeves Building WG, cnr Mayoral Drive and Governor Fitzroy Place
To register your seat via Eventbrite: Auckland: The Naked Scientist Live

Wellington
6-7pm Tuesday 12 August 2014
Paramount Theatre, 25 Courtenay Place
To register your seat via Eventbrite: Wellington: The Naked Scientist Live

For more information follow @upthisway or join the conversation at #nakedscientistsnz.

Science podcasting workshops for scientists

Wouldn’t it be great if more New Zealand science was give the Naked Scientists treatment? We’ll be offering New Zealand scientists who want to try their hand at podcasting, the opportunity to learn some tips and techniques from Dr Chris Smith in free science podcasting workshops we are hosting in Auckland and Wellington.

All of the details are here. Applications via the online form essential.

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

1 Comment

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.

Panellists 
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 www.scanz.co.nz

Tangaroa gets an overhaul Peter Griffin Jul 11

2 Comments

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

tangaroa_drydock_DSC_8178_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

 

Big dish our eye to the universe Peter Griffin Jul 07

1 Comment

As a kid heading north out of Auckland on holiday road trips I used to love going past the big satellite earth station near Warkworth.

For decades, the earth station, which was built by the New Zealand Post Office in 1971 and is owned by Telecom, formed a major link for voice and data communications and even broadcast TV links to other countries.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 11.27.24 am

With the Southern Cross Cable and other satellite connections available to it, the earth station has been surplus to requirements at Telecom for years, but the landmark will live on as a research installation for AUT University’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research.

The earth station is sited just a few hundred metres away from a 12-metre radio telescope operated by AUT on land also owned by Telecom.

Use of the 30-metre dish is a boon for AUT’s Professor of Astronomy, Sergei Gulyaev, as it significantly increases the collecting area and spectrum range its radio telescope can access.

What is the team looking skyward for? Galactic nuclei, star formation, the Milky Way’s centre, cosmic masers and gaseous components of our Galaxy are some of the things they are studying.

The dish is now a major piece of research infrastructure for the New Zealand science system, with the dish working in conjunction with with Australian radio telescopes to form the long-baseline array.

The Institute is also using the dish as a base for some interesting commercial work. As Delwyn Dickey from the Rodney Times reports:

The Warkworth facility is also the last one in the Pacific before the Mauna Kea Observatory 7000km away in Hawaii.

This has led to IRASR picking up a 10-year contract to track the Space-X vehicle servicing the International Space Station as it heads across the Pacific

The Institution of Professional Engineers has an interesting background article on the construction of the Warkworth satellite earth station:

The first step in the project was to select a site. This was not an easy task because of various considerations. The criteria included screening from other radio transmissions, such as radar, a good horizon to enable a clear view of the sky, easy access for power, a communications link back to the international telephone exchange at Auckland, access to mains power supply, and good weather without excessive wind speeds. A site north of Auckland was also preferred to avoid the antenna having to ‘look’ through the aircraft flight paths and holding patterns associated with Auckland International Airport. Good rock foundation conditions were vital as well, in order to support the 2,300 ton weight of the 30 metre diameter antenna with its massive reinforced concrete pedestal.

Some pictures of the site in earlier days:

Credit: IPENZ

Credit: IPENZ

 

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 11.37.23 am

credit: IPENZ

 

New Zealand’s seven most influential scientists Peter Griffin Jun 23

14 Comments

UPDATED: At least seven New Zealand scientists have featured in a list including the top 1 per cent most-cited researchers in science worldwide.

They include (I missed a couple of expat Kiwis out so have updated the list):

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.20.45 PM

A couple of ex-pat Kiwis also make it into the 1% club. Professor Rob Knight, University of Colorado at Boulder is actually the most-cited Kiwi on the list. Here’s a Nature profile on him.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.23.35 PM

And Robert Webster, an avian influenza expert who was born in Balclutha. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.29.07 AM

The list is compiled by Thomson Reuters, who assessed papers indexed between 2002 and 2012 in 21 broad fields of study. They tracked authors who published numerous articles that ranked among the top 1% of the most cited in their respective fields in the given year of publication.

You can view their report: The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014

Highly cited

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.36.31 AMAlexei Drummond is a Professor of Computational Biology at the University of Auckland. According to Google Scholar, his work has been cited 22,211 times. He has an h-index of 48 overall. As BenchFly explains:

“…the larger the number of important papers, the higher the h-index, regardless of where the work was published. To calculate it, only two pieces of information are required: the total number of papers published (Np) and the number of citations (Nc) for each paper”.

Professor Harvey White is research leader and cardiologist at Auckland City Hospital Green Lane Cardiac Service. A personal scandal in 2005 hasn’t dented his citation record – he is considered one of the top cardiologists in the world. Here’s an in-depth interview with Harvey White. According to ResearchGate, his work has been cited 14,647 times.

Professor Richie Poulton is Director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, which conducts the Dunedin longitudinal study. According to ResearchGate, his work has been cited 13,392 times. One of the papers he was a co-author of was cited 3341 times alone.

Philip Hulme is a Professor of plant biosecurity at Lincoln University. According to Google Scholar his work has been cited 8508 times and he has an h-index of 49.

Robert Webster, who is based in the US, is highly-cited – I can’t find a tally of total citations for him, but one of his papers, from 1992 has been cited 3209 times. I interviewed Robert back in 2010, reflecting on the N1H1 pandemic.

Rob Knight is a Professor at the BioFrontiers Institute and in the Departments of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Computer Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Earth Microbiome Project, and a co-founder of the American Gut Project. He has 31,270 citations according to Google Scholar and an h-index of 80.

David Wardle has 28,254 citations according to Google Scholar and an h-index of 77. He is Professor of Soil and Plant Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and also works at Landcare Research here in New Zealand. His research “explores the links between aboveground and belowground communities and their consequences for ecosystem functioning”.
Did I leave any kiwis off the list?

And because we love comparing ourselves to our friends across the Tasman, how many Australia-based scientists make it into the highly-cited one per cent? That would be 65.

 

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

11 Comments

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.

Bryce

 

Calicivirus and the Great Easter Bunny Hunt Peter Griffin Jun 11

No Comments

Mystery still surrounds exactly how a group of renegade farmers imported the calicivirus into New Zealand in 1997 and spread it around the South Island in a bid to kill the rabbits that were destroying their land.

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 12.53.33 PMBut 17 years later, scientists have been able to give some indication of the impact the illicit introduction of the virus had on rabbit populations. They used data gathered over 23 years at Alexandra’s Great Easter Bunny Hunt where the rabbits shot during that day are counted up. It turns out that rabbit kills counted after the hunt fell 60 per cent following the introduction of calicivirus – or Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) as it is now known. Kill rates remained low for several years afterwards before gradually increasing again and then fluctuating year to year.

As the scientists, from Landcare Research, who this week published their findings in Wildlife Research, note:

“The disease initially had a dramatic negative effect on kill rates, but this effect began to wane 4 years later. Similar results based on spotlight counts have been reported from the same area, and from the MacKenzie Basin nearby.”

Counting rabbits killed in the Bunny Hunt could be a good indication of the health of rabbit populations, indeed better than spotlight counts, where rabbits can easily be double-counted. But the researchers point out that not all farms in the region participate in the Bunny Hunt, so it’s not a true random sample. Many farmers down there believe that rabbits are so numerous in the region that the Bunny Hunt barely makes a dent in, or reflects rabbit population numbers.

This table from the researchers’ paper well illustrates the impact RHD had on rabbit populations:

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 12.16.17 PM

However, conventional rabbit control in the few years after 1997 were at very low levels in the region, so the scientists are fairly confident the disease was the major influence on rabbit populations during the period.

RHD continues to be active in the rabbit population:

“RHD still appears to be killing rabbits (low rates of increase) but its efficacy as a biological control agent is waning, compared with the first outbreaks of the disease.”

So how many rabbits do they kill at the Great Easter Bunny Hunt? Well between 1991 and 2013 they counted 248,000 dead rabbits. That equates to 35.1 rabbits shot per team member in a 24 hour period.

A scene from the Great Easter Bunny Hunt

A scene from the Great Easter Bunny Hunt

Since the calicivirus controversy of 1997 the government has legalised use of RHD to control rabbit populations, however its effectiveness has decreased as rabbits have developed immunity to it. The main rabbit control measures remain shooting, trapping and poisoning.

This article has some good background on the issue.

A summary of the Wildlife Research paper…

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 12.16.42 PM

 

Budget good for science, but where’s the roadmap? Peter Griffin May 15

No Comments

The national budget announced today contained a raft of announcements on research, science and innovation funding.

Bill English delivers the 2014 Budget

Bill English delivers the 2014 Budget

The only big surprise is the news that additional centres of research excellence will be funded from 2016, bringing to ten the total numbers of CoREs that will exist. That’s a clear endorsement by the Government of the CoRE model of doing research and will open up opportunities for those who missed out on the current CoRE funding round. The news that a Maori search CoRE will be funded will placate those who were outraged that existing CoRE Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga missed the cut this year for renewed funding. Maori research will be a focus in future, it is just unclear what form it will take.

Sciblogger Shaun Hendy well summed up the treatment science received in the Budget:

“It is still frustrating to see another budget go by in the absence a coherent national science strategy. Although the science sector will be pleased with what is on offer this year overall, we are still very much in the dark on where our science system is headed in the long term.”

Notable changes include:

- $56.8m more for contestable science funding (over three years, beginning in 2015/16)
- Plans to reform the contestable funding system, including a new National Statement of Science Investment, aiming to make the system “more flexible, less complex and more closely focused on research that is of relevance to NZ”
- Expansion of the Centres of Research Excellence – $53 million over four years will be added to existing funding to boost the number of CoREs to ten by 2016. In addition to the six successful CoREs previously announced, three more will be selected in a closed tender from the 21 unsuccessful applicants of that previous funding round. The final CoRE will be a Maori Centre of Research Excellence, chosen in an open tender
An additional $67.9 million for tertiary science education (an 8.5 per cent increase per equivalent full-time student)

The Science Media Centre rounded up reaction from scientists and researchers. Here’s what they had to say…

Dr Nicola Gaston, President of the NZ Association of Scientists (NZAS), comments:

“The funding for additional CoREs is very welcome. The loss of CoREs such as the Allan Wilson Centre and Nga Pae o te Maramatanga served to highlight that this is a very successful funding stream for science and research in New Zealand. Six CoREs is probably too few, given the diversity of the research areas that are covered by the CoREs, coupled with the expectation that there will be turnover as new ideas and collaborations emerge.
It is a little disconcerting to see the goalposts in any contestable funding process being moved after the fact, but the CoRE process to date has been well run, which justifies confidence in the process going forward. The establishment of a Maori Centre of Research Excellence which is still contestable, but not in direct competition with all of the other CoREs is well justified, and should hopefully strengthen the ability of M?ori researchers to contribute to all areas of research in New Zealand in the future. Progress in this respect is well overdue.

“The boost to contestable science funding is also excellent. The impact of moving funding to the National Science Challenges from the pool of contestable funding was always an issue of some considerable concern. We have also seen a shift towards industry-facing projects from this funding stream, which has increased the pressure on the Marsden Fund, so additional support in this area is also well-justified.

“The boost to support of tertiary students in the sciences is very well justified. However the government focus on STEM subjects should not be used to question the value of an arts degree: there are many areas of research in which interdisciplinary work is producing real world outcomes with increased impact, and the creation of a false competition between science and arts subjects is, in my opinion, very unhealthy.

“The funding to Callaghan Innovation for ‘the development and maintenance of science, engineering, technology, design and other strategic capabilities’ is being cut by a third. This is not surprising, given that Callaghan Innovation are on record as seeing no need to employ specialist researchers themselves; it is however a sad end to the story of Industrial Research and the history of the DSIR in the Hutt Valley. It is unfortunate to see such funds in the budget tagged with the reference to the ‘Advanced Technology Institute’: if I remember correctly, the advertised plan was to double the non-university workforce in physical sciences and engineering, rather than decimate it.

“In summary: this government clearly understands the real economic benefits of investment in science. However, the balance between science that produces outputs in the short term, and the science that creates significant advices in understanding in the long term – including the development and maintenance of capability in New Zealand – is something that we need to keep an eye on.”

Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Punaha Matatini and Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, comments:

“This is a good budget for science, and reflects its importance for the future development of New Zealand. I am pleased to see funding for another three Centres of Research Excellence. The CoREs do almost everything the National Science Challenges are supposed to achieve and more, so it pleasing to see their value being recognised by the government. I am also very relieved to see that the government will back a Centre of Maori Research Excellence, after Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga missed out in the latest CoRE round. Support for Maori research is crucial if New Zealand is to grow and develop further as a country. It is also good to see an increase in funding for students taking STEM subjects at universities – graduates in these subjects are in short supply in the wider economy.

“Nonetheless, it is still frustrating to see another budget go by in the absence a coherent national science strategy. Although the science sector will be pleased with what is on offer this year overall, we are still very much in the dark on where our science system is headed in the long term.

“For instance, we still don’t have a good sense of the future direction of Callaghan Innovation. Their capacity for research and development continues to be wound down. Although a significant portion of Callaghan’s researchers were transferred to universities this year, these researchers are now at the mercy of an oversubscribed contestable funding system, and over time it is quite possible we will see an erosion of our national capability in the applied physical sciences as a result.

“Although the government continues to flirt with tax incentives for R&D, I would very much like to see Minister Joyce take the plunge and admit that R&D tax credits were a good idea. It would also be good to see him acknowledge the extent of our shortfall in post-doctoral fellowship funding – the lack of post-doc positions in New Zealand is of very real concern for emerging scientists. It’s probably too much to expect him to address these issues in election year.”

Budget 2014: Live coverage on Sciblogs Peter Griffin May 15

No Comments

News on and reaction to Budget 2014 will be featured here this afternoon, as our Sciblogs and Science Media Centre experts and contributors offer their take on the state of the Government’s finances and its funding priorities. Follow the Storify our feed to get the latest updates in one place…

Live updates on Storify below…

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer