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Politicians, climate change and evidence abuse Peter Griffin Apr 17

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I’ve recently been re-reading The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, the book by former Times science editor Mark Henderson, which examines the often flagrant disregard for scientific evidence shown by politicians around the world.

New Zealand politicians of all persuasions are as guilty of evidence abuse as their overseas counterparts. Examples of this abound, most famously, the Prime Minister’s causal dismissal, during a BBC Hardtalk interview, of the claims of Massey University freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy about the health of our rivers and streams.

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims

When asked by host Stephen Sackur how he responded to the serious claims Mike Joy made, the Prime Minister responded, rather tellingly:

“He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview”.

This week another Massey researcher, Professor Ralph Sims was in the gun, as Tuesday’s Parliament question time was occupied by discussion of climate change and the recent IPCC climate mitigation report of which Professor Sims was one of the New Zealand lead authors.

Responding to questions from the Green Party’s climate change spokesman, Kennedy Graham, who quoted from commentary on the mitigation report from Professor Sims, climate change minister Tim Groser had this to say:

“I would respectfully suggest to the gentleman that he stick to his area of expertise. Because… when we look… at the wild statements that the gentleman made, they are palpably wrong on multiple levels.

“Going around pretending that every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions, is complete and utter nonsense… so I think ‘stick to the knitting’ would not be a bad piece of advice.”

“I think the community should listen very carefully to the Professor when he is talking about his specific area of scientific expertise, on which I would have nothing to comment.

“But when he steers across into broader questions of comparability I suggest that actually they would be better listening to the person who represents the Government and has access to a wide range of official advice.”

Palpably wrong on multiple levels? What exactly did Professor Sims say? At the Science Media Centre, we gathered commentary from Professor Sims as well as numerous other scientists from here and around the world on Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Working Group III report on climate mitigation. Professor Sims was a lead author on the report. This is the statement he gave us and repeated in his Massey University release:

Prof Ralph Sims, Sustainable Energy, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University, lead author of IPCC AR5 WG3 report, comments:

“The argument that New Zealand produces only 0.14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (1) no longer holds. On average, each New Zealander is responsible for emitting around eight tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (2) and, with all the other greenhouse gases, now produces twice those of the average Chinese person and around eight times those of someone living in india (3). This means we are now the fourth highest emitter (4) per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada.

“New Zealand has set a modest target to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent below the 1990 gross emission level in just six years time (5), yet no one knows how we will achieve this. In our Sixth Communication document to the United Nations in December 2013, the Ministry of Environment projected our net greenhouse gas emissions (the total emitted minus the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests planted after 1990) will reach more than 75 million tonnes in 2020 (6) if we continue with business as usual. To reach the five per cent reduction target below our 1990 emissions, we will need to somehow reduce these to 55 million tonnes (7).

“The various means of achieving this are clearly outlined in the IPCC Mitigation report released today. They relate to buildings, transport, industry, energy supplies, food production and processing, and forests, all of which can lead to the better “green economy” recently outlined in a New Zealand Royal Society report. Many of these solutions also provide major  additional benefits such as less air pollution, better health, reduced traffic congestion, more employment and they actually save money.

“In the foreword of New Zealand’s recent Communications document to the United Nations, Minister Groser stated, ‘The emissions reduction opportunities available to other nations through conversion to renewables, mass public transport and energy efficiency in industry have already been done or have far less scope in New Zealand’. The IPCC Mitigation report clearly shows this is far from correct.”

Okay, so lets do a bit of a fact check on Professor Sims. I’ve bolded the factual claims he made in the statement above and numbered them. How do the facts stack up?

(1) The Ministry for the Environment has New Zealand accounting for “approximately 0.15 per cent of total world emissions”. CORRECT

(2) According to the Ministry for the Environment, in 2010 “New Zealand’s emissions per capita are 7.6 tonnes per person for carbon dioxide”. CORRECT

(3) According to Carbon Footprint of Nations this is certainly true for the latest available carbon emissions figures (2010) - I can’t find a direct comparison of the three countries for total GHG emissions overall in the same year CORRECT

(4) According to the Ministry for the Environment and the OECD, “in 2011, New Zealand’s emissions per person were the fifth highest among 40 Annex 1 countries, at 16.6 tonnes CO2-e per person”. A variation of one ranking which may be due to more up to date data being released. CORRECT

(5) New Zealand’s official emissions reduction target according to climate change minister Tim Groser in an official release. CORRECT

(6) These projections are from the Ministry for the Environment’s Sixth National Communication to the UN CORRECT

(7) Confirmed by MfE, 1990 emissions were 59.6 Mt CO2-e so a five per cent reduction on that level would be around 55 million tonnes. CORRECT

Who is talking nonsense exactly?

As you would expect from a professor, Ralph Sims is quoting official figures, not plucking them out of the air.

I can’t find any reference to Professor Sims claiming that, as Groser put it “every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions”. He didn’t mention anything of the sort in the SMC commentary or his Massey release. Maybe Groser heard him say something to that effect in the media, but if he did, I can’t find reference to it. Some countries have more ambitious emissions reduction targets than New Zealand, some are more conservative. That is not overly controversial.

The piece that likely raised Groser’s hackles is the claim that there are more “emissions reduction opportunities” than Groser is prepared to acknowledge, compared to other countries. Sure, that is grounds for an intelligent and robust debate – the whole argument hinges on what we could and should do to mitigate emissions relative to other countries. But Professor Sims co-authored the report looking at mitigation options. He knows what he is talking about. Actually, this is his area of expertise – check out his credentials. The fact that a senior scientist who has contributed to a major international scinetific report receives such dismissive contempt from a senior minister, is pretty sad.

For Groser to write off Professor Sims and his “wild statements” appears to be just another example of tired old evidence abuse and expert bashing because the evidence put forward is inconvenient to the Government’s position.

I was planning on sending my dog-eared copy of The Geek Manifesto to Mike Hosking (after his climate sceptic rant about climate change on Seven Sharp a couple of weeks ago). After the way science has been misused in the last week, I’m spoiled for choice as to who else I should consider sending it to…

WiFi revisited: my visit to the Press Council Peter Griffin Apr 11


Sciblogs readers may remember the kerfuffle in December when Otaki’s Damon Wyman led a campaign to have Wifi hotspots removed from classes at Te Horo School.

Damon Wyman

Damon Wyman

I wrote about it at the time here on Sciblogs, taking issue with Wyman’s misguided campaign, which was ultimately successful when the Te Horo Board of Trustees surveyed parents and then decided to switch off Wifi in the school’s junior classrooms.

If I was critical of the campaign, I was even more critical of Wyman and the anti-Wifi lobby in my New Zealand Listener column (subscription required), which was published in January after the decision had been made to switch off the Wifi.

In that piece I stated my opinion that Damon Wyman had confused correlation and causation in linking the death of his son Ethan from a brain tumour in 2012 to Ethan’s use of a Wifi-enabled iPod device, which the 10 year-old slept with under his pillow. I based that assertion on comments I’d seen Mr Wyman make in the media. I also wrote that anti-Wifi campaigners were cherry-picking papers to bolster their case and that the evidence didn’t stack up for many of the claims they made about health and safety concerns stemming from Wifi use.

Mr Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch, who has for years campaigned to keep cellphone towers out of communities, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about the column. The council, which consists of journalists, lawyers and laypeople and is presided over by retired Judge of the High Court, Sir John Hansen, considered submissions from the complainants, myself and the Listener. My Wyman, his lawyer Sue Grey and myself also gave oral submissions to the Press Council here in Wellington.

The result of all of that is that the Press Council have not upheld the complaints, protecting my right to have an informed opinion on the issue. I stand by everything I wrote. The decision is published on the Press Council website and published below as well. I’m pleased with the outcome of the case and thank the Listener for its staunch support throughout the proceedings.

I met Damon Wyman in Wellington soon after I wrote the column and again at the Press Council. If is fair to say we don’t see eye to eye. I have huge sympathy for what he has been through, though as Damon pointed out to me, I wouldn’t even begin to understand his position, as I do not have children myself.

However, I think he is wrong in his anti-Wifi campaign. I also believe that, having put himself out there in the media making these claims about Wifi safety, he needs to learn to handle the inevitable criticism that will result. At the Press Council hearing I quoted Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The evidence isn’t there to back up his position on Wifi. That’s not to say that the issue shouldn’t be closely monitored as our use of wireless networks increases.

I wish him all the best and hope he finds some peace with the tragedy that has taken place.

As for Stephanie Honeychurch, this email she sent to the Press Council to accompany her submission, says a lot about the way the woman thinks…

“I would so appreciate it if you can do this as this man is virulent, inaccurate and dangerous and I am sure you will agree his bigotry is putting children at risk…


Case Number: 2375 STEPHANIE HONEYCHURCH AGAINST NZ LISTENER (duplicate of WYMAN judgement)

Council Meeting MARCH 2014

There are two complaints about a Peter Griffin technology column, headlined Something in the air, in the February 1 issue of New Zealand Listener magazine published on January 25. The complainants are Damon Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch and the complaints have been looked at as one in the absence of substantial differences.

Damon Wyman, supported by his wife Jo, and Sue Grey, their lawyer, attended the Press Council meeting and spoke in support of the complaint. Mr Wyman and Ms Grey divided their allocation of time between them.
Peter Griffin, author of the column, attended the meeting on behalf of the editor, and spoke in defence of his column.

In his column, Mr Griffin said it was not true that Wi-Fi devices were dangerous to users’ health; there was no compelling scientific evidence to suggest that electromagnetic radiation emitted from Wi-Fi devices posed elevated risk of developing brain tumours.
Mr Griffin cited a growing anti-Wi-Fi movement using “dubious research” to bolster counter claims. He used the example of two fathers, Damon Wyman and David Bird, successfully campaigning to have Wi-Fi removed from junior classrooms at Te Horo School.
The Wi-Fi removal followed Mr Wyman’s 10-year-old son Ethan dying after developing a brain tumour. Ethan had slept with a wireless iPod under his pillow and the column said “Wyman is convinced the device was responsible for his son’s brain tumour…”
Mr Griffin said Mr Wyman’s reaction confused correlation and causation and he quoted two scientists, Martin Gledhill and Bruce Armstrong, in his argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health effects.

Mr Wyman complained that he had never categorically said Wi-Fi caused his son’s tumour, only that his son’s tumour has prompted him to research the subject. This is a key plank of Mr Wyman’s complaint.
He believed the innuendo in the opinion column was that there was no basis for health concerns and that the science around this was conclusive. Mr Wyman argued this was incorrect and there was scientific recognition of the need for precaution.

The column’s standfirst, ‘Scaremongers warning of the dire dangers of Wi-Fi are ignoring the science’ was presented as a statement of fact.

Mr Wyman met with Mr Griffin at the end of January and sought an apology, which was not forthcoming. Mr Griffin instead suggested Mr Wyman write to the Listener, which he did.
Mr Wyman was concerned at the impact publicity from Mr Griffin’s column was having on his three children.

Because Mr Griffin is also the manager of the Science Media Centre, Mr Wyman complained that he was being paid by the Government and defending its position. Martin Gledhill also received income from the Government and the telecommunications industry and, therefore, neither his nor Mr Griffin’s position was independent, expert or balanced.

The column, Mr Wyman said, breached Press Council principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Conflicts of Interest, Headlines and Captions, Comment and Fact, Children and Young People and Privacy.
Other than not suggesting a breach of the Press Council principle of Privacy, Stephanie Honeychurch’s complaint was not dissimilar to Mr Wyman’s.

Magazine editor’s response 
The complainants had a different view from Mr Griffin.
Based on several media reports quoting Mr Wyman, it was fair for Mr Griffin to conclude Mr Wyman believed the wireless iPod was responsible for his son’s brain tumour.
One particular article quoted Mr Wyman as saying, “We’re not saying that caused it, but it seems like a bit of a coincidence”. The editor argued that it was reasonable to draw from that comment that Mr Wyman believed the iPod was responsible for the tumour.

Mr Griffin’s column was not defamatory of Mr Wyman. Saying Mr Wyman believed a Wi-Fi device caused a tumour would not bring him into contempt, ridicule or disrepute.
The Listener column concerned matters of public interest and did not breach the privacy of Mr Wyman’s children. It did not name them and Mr Wyman had himself chosen to enter the public forum around this subject.

The Science Media Centre which Mr Griffin managed had a charter ensuring its editorial independence from the Government and, therefore, there was no conflict of interest.
The editor also included a response from Mr Griffin, which featured much of the same points, along with scientific references in support of the argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health risks.

The Press Council sets a high bar when dealing with complaints against opinion columns. Mr Griffin was entitled to express his honestly held opinion, supported by scientific research he deemed relevant, and the Listener was equally entitled to publish it.
There is not a requirement for balance in an opinion column.

Use of the word ‘convinced’ to describe Mr Wyman’s view of a link between the tumour and the device was unnecessarily strong and does not align with what Mr Wyman says is his view.
Although the complainants strongly believe Mr Wyman had not categorically linked his son’s brain tumour to the use of the Wi-Fi iPod, it was not unreasonable for Mr Griffin to conclude this, at the time the column was written, based on public reports and comments by Mr Wyman.

The Council, and Mr Griffin, have now heard Mr Wyman state this is not his position.
Mr Griffin and the complainants have differing views on the science around the health risks posed by Wi-Fi devices. Both are entitled to such opinions and both provided much evidence in support of them. It is not for the Press Council to debate or rule on the science.

The column’s standfirst properly reflects its content.
Mr Wyman cannot expect to campaign or lobby on an issue without public scrutiny and comment. His children, other than Ethan, however, were not specifically referenced in the column and it did not breach their privacy.
The Listener published a letter from Mr Wyman which provided an alternative view to the science Mr Griffin had relied on for his column. The letter ran two weeks after the column was published, in part due to the magazine editor waiting for Mr Griffin to meet Mr Wyman.

The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

Science communication as TV spectacle Peter Griffin Mar 12

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The reviews are in for Neil de Grasse Tyson’s reboot of the classic Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 5.11.36 PM

The first episode of the series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted on Sunday night in the US with an estimated 8.5 million people tuning in to watch it across Fox channels. According to Neilsen, 40 million people worldwide will have watched it by the end of the week. That’s pretty staggering reach when it comes to a science TV show.

The series debuts here in New Zealand on Sunday night on Sky TV’s National Geographic channel. Those using a virtual private network to stream video from US TV shows can watch the first episode on Fox’s website or on the Hulu TV portal. I’ve seen it. I was very impressed. It honours the brilliant original series while updating it, content wise and graphically. Neil de Grasse Tyson does a great job fronting it.

The series shows what can be achieved when top notch talent and a large amount of money are thrown at a TV project. But science-related TV events like this are rare. President Obama even recorded a promo for the show in which he said that Cosmos reminded Americans of their capacity to reach for the stars:

“There are no limits. So open your eyes and your imagination. The next big discovercould be yours”.

Imaginations captured

All very inspiring stuff. But what will the real impact of Cosmos be? Do popular TV series like this have the power to inspire and capture the imagination the way they did back when Sagan made the original?

Others have been mulling the same question. From The Atlantic:

Looking back on the 1980s, it’s hard to say how much public support for scientific research, including the planetary exploration missions so dear to Sagan’s heart, can be credited directly to programs like Cosmos, and how much depended on Congressional support for a space industry that might play some yet-to-be-determined role in World War III. Today, the federal government continues to invest in R&D, but those funds skew toward defense projects, health research, and technology-oriented innovation. Instead of space war, defense R&D focuses on cybersecurity, remote-sensing technologies, and neurowarfare. NASA, meanwhile, limps along. That seems unlikely to change, whether Cosmosscores 5 or 500 million viewers.

I don’t think anyone should be looking to a show like Cosmos to be doing anything other than entertaining and to an extent educating people about our world and the universe. The impact of such things is cumulative – exposure to them can change perception and foster interest over time. When I think about what got me interested in science and technology as a child it was a mix of BBC documentaries, sci-fi books, enthusiastic teachers and my father, who as a technician at Philips in Dublin, got his hands on some of the newest consumer electronics devices first. I fondly remember Sagan’s Cosmos, but it was a small part of the mix of influences.

If children sit down in front of the box to watch Cosmos and come away with what I took from the original it has more than achieved its purpose.

Away from the US, down here in a small country like New Zealand, its interesting to ponder what the impact of a locally-produced science-related show like Cosmos could be. We have few real TV events in this country that are not sports or election related. Late last year a fantastic series called Wild About New Zealand aired that, I think, stands out as a series that really got people thinking and talking about the wonderful place we live in.

The production values were outstanding. This was TV that was well thought-out, well constructed, and followed a format that ignored faddish TV conventions. It will still be a good doco in 30 years time.

Do we have more shows like this in us? Do we have a science show that could get the nation talking the way Cosmos has in the US?

Some of the Cosmos reviews

Scienceblogsthe first episode is a win

The VergeMaking science cool again

VarietyCosmos review

Public not keen on climate engineering Peter Griffin Jan 13


As political apathy and inaction on climate change dims hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, scientists are increasing exploring plan B – engineering the climate to avoid the worst of what is predicted to come if emissions can’t be curtailed.

A Royal Society of London paper put the issue squarely in the spotlight in 2009 when it issued an influential paper that suggested we need to take geo-engineering seriously. It recommended that:

- Parties to the UNFCCC should make increased efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions of at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 and more thereafter;

- CDR and SRM geoengineering methods should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change. CDR methods should be regarded as preferable to SRM methods.

- Relevant UK government departments, in association with the UK Research Councils, should together fund a 10 year geoengineering research programme at a level of the order of £10M per annum.

- The Royal Society, in collaboration with international science partners, should develop a code of practice for geoengineering research and provide recommendations to the international scientific community for a voluntary research governance framework.

Some of those recommendations have sunk without trace and there has been laughable progress on others (50% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 is looking increasingly unrealistic).

The irony is that the later we leave action on climate change mitigation, the quicker our hand will be forced on geo-engineering schemes. As some New Zealand research featured in Nature Climate Change this week suggests, the public is wary of any efforts to engineer the climate, meaning legislative and funding measures to allow it to happen will not be popular.

The researchers conducted an online survey with 2,000 people across New Zealand and Australia and undertook 30 in-depth interviews. Lead author, Professor Malcolm Wright, deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey’s College of Business, said the interviewers drew on commercial methods used to evaluate perception of brands and new products to see what the public’s perception of various proposed climate engineering schemes was.

“The results show that the public has strong negative views towards climate engineering,” said Professor Wright. “Where there are positive reactions, they favour approaches that reduce carbon dioxide over those that reflected sunlight.”

So solar sails are out and biochar and carbon capture and storage are in.

Professor Wright added:

“It is a striking result and a very clear pattern. Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar or capturing carbon directly from the air.”

The results are hardly surprising – and mirror other surveys conducted around the world. But are we willing to do anything not to avoid the wackier geoengineering schemes having to be seriously considered in the next few decades. That’s a different question and would perhaps make for an illuminating survey.

A selection of climate engineering schemes

Cloud seeding

Cloud seeding

A "slab" air contactor

A “slab” air contactor

Solar sails

Solar sails



Marine cloud whitening

Marine cloud whitening


10 weirdest science stories of 2013 Peter Griffin Dec 18

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You may have seen our list of what we thought were the top 10 international and New Zealand science stories of 2013. Well, my colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre also came up with a list of what they considered to be the weirdest science stories of the year. Yep, some research published in New Zealand makes the list – farts on a plane. All of the research listed below reminds us that the pursuit of new knowledge can take us down some windy paths, but that’s what makes science so interesting. 

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 11.50.44 AM

Aussie fake finger research

1. Researchers found we can smell ten smells – and one of them is popcorn!  We all know tastes can be classified into five distinct flavours, but research released in September suggested there are 10 basic categories of odour – and that one of them is popcorn. The other odours are fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, lemon and two kinds of sickening odours: pungent and decayed.

2. Farts on a plane were found to be ‘better out than in’Talking of pungent and decayed, in February a team of Danish and British gastroenterologists discussed that while holding back a fart on an aeroplane may cause significant discomfort and physical symptoms, releasing flatus presents social complications, leaving potential aerial farters in a quandary. Suggesting that there’s truth in the tradition of ‘better out than in’, the researchers also provide advice on how to get away with it. They recommend walking up and down the aisle if you want to let rip as “the social problems of flatulence are reduced, since the odour is distributed over a larger area”. And the final take home message? “The future frequent flyer may develop the ability to “sneak a fart” by wearing charcoal-lined underwear thus experiencing a comfortable flight in harmony with fellow passengers.” We can only hope.

3. Sorry boys, scientists found size matters after all: In April, Australian researchers showed that, when it comes to attractiveness at least, penis size does matter. Using a series of life-sized, computer-generated images of male figures, they discovered that women rated the ‘cyber’ men as more attractive as penis size increased. But there is some comfort for less well-endowed blokes out there, assuming you’re also tall – increased height had an almost equivalent positive effect. The results suggest the female tendency to choose a man with a bigger manhood could have driven the evolution of larger penises in humans.  Video available:

4. Studying applause revealed it’s infectiousScientists found that when it comes to applause, it’s not the quality of performance, but peer pressure that affects clapping. In June, researchers revealed that clapping spreads through a crowd like an infection, and that it’s the social pressure from people around us who start or stop clapping that has the biggest influence on how long we applaud. It seems no-one likes to be the first or the last caught clapping.

5. To the mothmobile! Insects hitched a ride on robots: Forget dogs driving cars, in February moths got their own mode of transport – robots. Japanese researchers developed a two-wheeled robot that’s driven by a male silk-moth. The moths steer the machine towards enticing female sex pheromones, allowing researchers to monitor their neural activity. Video available:

6. Detachable penises and an inevitable headache – sea slug sex astounded us allIt might have seemed ridiculous in the mildly popular 90s song, but in February scientists were surprised to discover a sea slug with a truly detachable penis. The sea slug, Chromodoris reticulata is able to dispose of its penis after sex and grow a new one within 24 hours – a feat it can repeat at least three times. And in similarly weird sea slug sex news, in November, Australian scientists found that a Great Barrier Reef species stabs its sexual partners through the head during mating. The researchers suggest this ‘head injection’ shoots prostate gland secretions into the recipient’s central nervous system, directly affecting their physiology. Video available:

7.  Scientists figured out how to read our dreamsWe’ve all been bored rigid by other people recounting their dreams, but in April Japanese researchers read people’s dreams directly for the first time. The scientists first built up a database of dream images by scanning peoples brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they slept, then waking them and asking them to describe the images in their dreams. By matching the images to the brain maps, they were then able to predict which images people had dreamt about just by looking at the brain scans, getting it right about two thirds of the time. Video available:

8. Szechuan peppers were found to pack a punchIf you think eating a Szechuan pepper feels a bit like a slap in the mouth, you’re right. In September, UK scientists showed that the signal sent to the brain in response to eating a spicy Szechuan peppercorn is the equivalent of 50 light taps on the skin every second, mimicking the sense of touch.

9. Illusory fake fingers fooled our brains:  In September, Australian researchers revealed a whole new class of illusion by tricking the brain into believing a fake finger was the real thing using only sensory inputs from muscles. The illusion shows that the body does not require sight or touch to sense which parts of your body belong to you, or to determine their positions in the world.

10. Research revealed that dogs can tell left from rightYou might think a wagging tail is a wagging tail, but you could be underestimating man’s best friends. Italian research released in November suggested dogs recognise and respond differently when their fellow canines wag to the right than when they wag to the left. The findings show that dogs, like humans, have asymmetrically organised brains, with the left and right sides playing different roles. Video available:

Top 10 science stories of 2013 Peter Griffin Dec 13

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From the first vat-grown hamburger to the discovery of the world’s largest volcano, scientists pushed back the limits of human knowledge in 2013 and developed technologies that could radically change how we live our lives. 

Over at the Science Media Centre, in conjunction with our colleagues at the AusSMC, we assembled the top 10 picks for the most significant science stories of the year. Contact the SMC if you would like more information about any of these stories, including copies of the research papers associated with them.

It was also a big year for New Zealand science with researchers publishing studies in some of the world’s most influential journals. See below for our Top 10 list of New Zealand science stories that captured the public’s attention in 2013.

Top 10 international science stories

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.46.09 PM1. Space sounds revealed Voyager 1 had boldly gone: In September, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave our solar system and venture into interstellar space. The probe, launched in 1977 with the aim of reaching Jupiter and Saturn, is now over 19 billion kilometres from the sun. Scientists listened in to vibrations in the plasma surrounding Voyager – the sound of interstellar space – after it was hit by a massive solar wave in April. The vibrations allowed them to calculate the plasma’s density, which differs between our solar system and interstellar space, confirming Voyager was no longer in our solar system.

2. Carbon dioxide hit a new peak and human influence on the climate was clearer than ever: In May, levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a symbolic milestone, passing 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time in human history. Just a few months later in September, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that human influence on the climate system is clearer than ever -we are now 95 percent certain that humans are the cause of global warming. Climate scientists from New Zealand were among the more than 600 scientists and researchers who worked on the IPCC report.

3. Scientists created human stem cells using cloning techniques: In May, researchers used therapeutic cloning tocreate human embryonic stem cells for the first time. The process involved taking the nucleus – which contains the genetic material – from a normal cell and transferring it into an unfertilised egg with its own genetic material removed. While this approach had previously been used in monkeys and mice, it had never succeeded using human cells. This discovery, described by Australian scientists as “a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine”, could help develop personalised therapies for a range of currently untreatable diseases. However, the process requires human donor eggs, which are not easy to obtain, and raises a number of ethical issues.

4. Do you want fries with that? The world’s most expensive burger was grown in the lab: The world’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London in August this year – generating headlines around the world. The burger patty – which one food critic described as ‘close to meat’ – was developed by scientists fromMaastricht University in the Netherlands through research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Starting with stem cells from a biopsy of two cows (a Belgian Blue and a Blonde d’Aquitaine), the scientists grew muscle fibres in the lab. The fibres were pressed together with breadcrumbs and binding ingredients, then coloured with beetroot juice and saffron, resulting in the most expensive hamburger in history at a cost of around NZ$400,000.

5. Doctors stopped HIV in its tracks in the “Mississippi baby”: A child born with HIV and treated with a series of antiviral drugs for the first 18 months of its life was found to be free of the virus more than 12 months after treatment ended. When the infant was 30 months of age, HIV-1 antibodies remained completely undetectable. However, the big question of whether this child, known as the “Mississippi baby”, has truly been cured of HIV remains unanswered. “The best answer at the moment is a definitive maybe”, HIV expert Scott Hammer, wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial which accompanied the research.

6. Redefining mental illness: In May, the new version of the diagnostic reference manual used by clinicians in the U.S. and around the world to diagnose mental disorders was released. The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the first update in nearly 20 years and followed a decade of review and consultation. It’s publication met with widespread controversy. One of its major changes is to introduce a graded scale known as Autism Spectrum Disorder combining the former four autism-related disorders: autistic, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative, and pervasive developmental disorder. Elsewhere, several new disorders were added, new suicide risk assessment scales were introduced and the threshold for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was lowered. Critics of DSM-5, including New Zealand experts,  argue that it will lead to the over-diagnosis of mental disorders, stigmatising millions of people who are essentially normal.

7. Human liver grown in mouse: Scientists successfully transplanted tiny ‘liver buds’ derived from human stem cells into mice with disable immune systems, staving off the deaths of the animals. The preliminary results, published in Nature, will need years of follow-up research and trials, but hint at a potential solution to the worldwide scarcity of human livers available for transplant. Major technical hurdles have to be overcome before the treatment is useful for humans, including mass-producing the trillions of human iPS-derived precursor cells to even replace even part of a human liver.

8. A king turned up in a car park: In February the bones of Richard III were discovered in the inauspicious surroundings of a car park in Leicester, England – more than 500 years after he died. Radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis all helped confirm the identity of last Plantagenet king. As if the indignity of being dug up in a car park wasn’t bad enough, further research revealed Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines.

9. The croaking dead: An Aussie frog was resurrected: Australian scientists announced in March that they had succeeded in growing early stage embryos containing the DNA of an extinct frog. The research is the first step of Project Lazarus, which aims to bring the Australian gastric-brooding frog back to life. The scientists took nuclei – which contain the extinct frog’s DNA – from frozen tissue samples collected in the 1970s. The nuclei were injected into donor eggs from a distantly-related frog, and some of the eggs went on to divide and grow into embryos, reviving hopes for an animal that has been extinct since 1983. The research was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of this year

10. The world’s largest volcano was discovered: In September, scientists discovered the largest single volcano on Earth under the Pacific Ocean. The megavolcano spans 650 km – similar to the distance between Melbourne and Canberra – but don’t worry, it’s been slumbering for the last 145m years. Scientists had thought the volcano, known as Tamu Massif, was a series of volcanoes, but the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – of which Australia is a partner – showed that it is in fact a single, immense volcano, constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the volcanic centre to form a broad, shield-like shape.

Top 10 New Zealand science stories

1. The big dry: The year started with incredibly dry conditions that soon had farmers throughout the country struggling to feed their animals. The entire North Island was officially declared a drought zone and ongoing water restrictions were imposed in many regions. A comparative study on the 2013 drought released by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) confirmed it as one of the most extreme on record for New Zealand and the worst since 1945-46. Scientists also concluded that farmers would have to employ more extensive catchment infrastructure to prepare for a future of more frequent droughts as a result of climate change.

From the SMC: Briefing – drought, soils, rivers, climate outlook

2. Viagra for pregnant women?: Researchers from Gravida and the University of Auckland embarked on the world’s first clinical trial of a new therapy that adapts a well-known drug – sildenafil, the generic form of Viagra, for use in pregnant women whose babies have been diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction. Growth restriction in utero is a potentially serious pregnancy complication with no current treatment options. The New Zealand trial is the culmination of 15 years work and part of a coordinated international effort to translate promising preliminary results into tangible benefits for pregnant women.

From the SMC: Briefing – Viagra trial in pregnant women may save underweight babies

3. Capital rattled by earthquakes: A magnitude 6.5 earthquake beneath Cook Strait in July and subsequent aftershocks reminded New Zealanders of just how active a seismic region we all live in. The earthquakes caused damage to buildings in central Wellington and in Seddon, close to the epicentre. The quakes also posed a puzzle for scientists who are still getting to grips with what exactly happened on what faults beneath Cook Strait. Unlike the Canterbury earthquakes however, the Cook Strait series were not unexpected. As GNS Science seismologist Ken Gledhill commented: “It is something that happens every few decades if you actually look at the historical record. These things happen periodically. What we know about this series of earthquakes and particularly the one last night, was that they were in the overlying Earth’s crust”.

From the SMC: Update on probability of future earthquakes

4. Fluoridation in the spotlight: Hamilton City Council’s decision in July to suspend fluoridation of the town water supply sparked widespread debate about the use of the compound to combat tooth decay. The move went against Ministry of Health and World Health Organization guidelines and was widely condemned by dental experts who reviewed claims around the risk of fluoridation and found them to be unsubstantiated. An injection of scientific reality into the discussion came via the University of Otago’s Dr. Jonathan Broadbent who fronted numerous media interviews to explain the body of peer-reviewed literature that overwhelmingly supports fluoridation at recommended levels. A subsequent public referendum held in October saw 70 per cent of Hamiltonian voters opt for a resumption of fluoridation. The Council has reserved its decision on whether to do so until it hears the outcome of a High Court case in New Plymouth, where the right of the local authority to fluoridate the water supply is being challenged.

From the SMC: Hamilton opts for water fluoridation – expert responds

5. Fonterra’s food scare: New Zealanders became acquainted with the microbe clostridium botulinum when dairy giant Fonterra revealed its milk powder may have been tainted with the potentially deadly bacterium. Fonterra quickly moved to recall shipments of infant formula, sparking a trade crisis for the Government and diplomatic tensions with the likes of China, Russia and Sri Lanka. Further testing of milk powder samples revealed that it wasn’t clostridium botulinum that had been detected, but the similar but inoccuous clostridium sporogenes, which can lead to food spoiling but is essentially harmless. The episode, which has cost Fonterra tens of millions of dollars, sparked several inquiries, the first of which has called for an overhaul of Fonterra’s crisis management practices and better procedures for using external scientific testing.

From the SMC: Fonterra’s false alarm – Clostridium sporogenes explained

6. Sugar babies research: A study of babies born at Waikato Women’s Hospital in Hamilton between 2008 and 2010 found that a cheap and easy-to-administer dextrose gel should be used to treat low blood sugars in newborns, a condition that affects 5-15% of newborns and, in severe cases, can lead to brain damage. The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Auckland and Waikato Hospital, was published in leading medical journal The Lancet. Babies who developed hypoglycemia were randomly assigned to one of two groups, receiving either 40% dextrose gel or a placebo gel for up to six doses over 48 hours – in addition to standard care. The babies who received dextrose gel were half as likely to exhibit further substantial drops in blood sugar levels and less likely to be admitted to intensive care for hypoglycaemia. The study received widespread international attention.

From the SMC: Study finds sweet solution for neonatal condition

7. Understanding the kiwifruit blight: The genome of Psa-V, the causal agent of bacterial canker of kiwifruit, was sequenced by a team of scientists at the University of Otago, with the resutls published in PLoS ONE. The study confirmed a Chinese origin for the bacteria and revealed genetic clues about why this variant of the plant diseasedevastated New Zealand kiwifruit crops. They also found distinct genetic ‘islands’ encoding traits that may make the disease more aggressive. These appear to have been transferred from bacterial strains attacking unrelated plants on at least three separate occasions, and may have triggered the virulent outbreaks seen.

From the SMC: Psa origins mapped – experts respond

8. Distant neutrinos detected: The international IceCube research team, which includes several New Zealanders working with scientific instruments buried two kilometres down beneath the South Pole, detected for the first time, neutrinos from outside of our solar system. The research published in the journal Science detailed the observation of 28 very high-energy particle events that constitute the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos from cosmic sources. Billions of neutrinos pass through every square centimeter of the Earth every second, but the vast majority originate either in the sun or in the Earth’s atmosphere. Far rarer are neutrinos from the outer reaches of our galaxy or beyond, which have long been theorised to provide insights into the powerful cosmic objects where high-energy cosmic rays may originate: supernovas, black holes, pulsars, active galactic nuclei and other extreme extragalactic phenomena.

From the SMC: IceCube catches interstellar prey

9. No patch on e-cigarettes: The first ever trial to compare e-cigarettes with nicotine patches found that both methods result in comparable success in quitting, with roughly similar proportions of smokers who used either method remaining abstinent from smoking for six months after a 13 week course of patches or e-cigarettes. The study, undertaken by researchers from the University of Auckland, was published in The Lancet and presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Annual Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The researchers noted that trial participants who took part in the study seemed much more enthusiastic about e-cigarettes than patches.

From the SMC: E-cigarettes comparable to patches

10. Genetic diversity and the Wairau Bar: University of Otago researchers sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from several human samples extracted from the Wairau Bar burial site in the Northern South Island, revealing there was a greater level of genetic diversity than expected in the early settlers of New Zealand. The results, published inProceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, cast doubt upon the theory that New Zealand was settled via small accidental or unplanned voyages. Such a settlement pattern would have eliminated much genetic diversity, the researchers said. New Zealand is believed to be the last major landmass to be permanently settled by humans.

From the SMC: DNA reveals diversity among first New Zealanders

Sciblogger scoops $100,000 communication prize Peter Griffin Nov 12


Another year, another Sciblogger scoops the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize!

She’s the scientist with the crazy hair and the hard-to-spell name. But she is far more than that. Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who blogs here about microbiology, infectious diseases and all manner of other topics is this year’s winner, and one of a group of scientists, teachers and students picking up a total of $1 million in prize money. Congratulations Siouxsie! I can’t think of any New Zealand scientist who deserves this honour more.

Communicator 1

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Over the last few years Siouxsie has been instrumental in the science communication movement in New Zealand. From her work handling media queries to her public talks to the pioneering science animations she produces, Siouxsie, a research fellow at the University of Auckland, has shown what is possible when you treat science communication as an integral part of your research career.

She really cares about how science is understood and perceived. She’s a battler against pseudoscience and is brave enough to speak up when controversial science-related issues are making headlines. If we had more scientists as engaged in science communication as Siouxsie Wiles, science and the public would be much better off for it.

Siouxsie follows fellow Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy in picking up this prize, which is worth $100,000 – $50,000 for the scientist and $50,000 towards a science media project.

Here’s the official release on Siouxsie’s achievement.

An Auckland scientist,who makes bacteria glow in the dark so that we can better understand how to fight infectious diseases,has won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, is researching the uses of bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms, and receives the award for her communication of a wide range of scientific issues.

Dr Wiles is a media commentator and blogger who regularly gives public talks about science and was one of the faces of last year’s public engagement campaign for the National Science Challenges.

She has made a number of popular animations that introduce the public to glowing creatures such as fireflies and the Hawaiian Bobtail squid and how their light can be used in science.

Dr Wiles leads the University of Auckland’s Bioluminescence Superbugs Group, focusing on how glowing bacteria can help scientists better prevent and fight microbial infections such as food poisoning, tuberculosis and hospital superbugs.

Winning the prize sees Dr Wiles receive $50,000, with another $50,000 allocated for further developing her science media communication skills.

Dr Wiles does much of her science communication in her spare time and sees it as a fundamental part of being a scientist.

“I love to enthuse about science but I also believe our profession has a responsibility to be approachable and explain things to the public in a jargon-free way.

“It’s also important because many New Zealand researchers get taxpayer funding to carry out their research. If we want to continue being funded, it’s vital that we tell the public what we are doing and why it is important.”

Dr Wiles, also known for her distinctive pink hair, says being one of eight scientists to appear on television in The Great New Zealand Science Project has raised her profile, especially with young New Zealanders.

“When I meet children there is often a squeal of recognition, particularly from young girls, and that is really important to me because they are a group we need to keep interested in science.

“Research shows that if you intervene at a young age you can change perceptions and help raise a generation that doesn’t see being a scientist as boring or unattainable.”

Dr Wiles has a first class Honours degree in medical microbiology from the University of Edinburgh and completed her PhD at the Oxford Centre for Ecology and Hydrology where she made glowing bacteria to monitor industrial pollution.

She went on to apply this knowledge to health research, initially studying strains of food poisoning in London and, later, ways of screening for compounds and vaccines to combat tuberculosis (TB).

For the last four years, she has been working at the University of Auckland where she has helped develop a new TB Lab.

Dr Wiles plans to devote some of the prize money to writing a children’s book on bioluminescence, a project she will carry out with her seven year old daughter.

She is also producing an animation about the anglerfish, made famous by the movie Finding Nemo, and will create a website called GlowHub to house her films and a series of short documentaries on the work of cutting-edge Kiwi scientists.

Other initiatives she plans include running workshops in which she and other leading science communicators will teach scientists how to craft their stories into two-minutescience animations and setting up a fund to work with artists on works inspired by bioluminescence and microbiology.

This builds on the ‘Living Light’ science-art installation she created with artist Rebecca Klee,harnessing the light-making properties of Vibrio fisheri, a kind of bioluminescent bacteria usually found in the sea, which featured in Auckland’s Art in the Dark Festival last week.

Dr Wiles says in addition to the honour of winning a Prime Minister’s Science Prize, she is excited about the doors it opens for her. “I love the process of discovery and intend to continue as a practicing scientist but this also makes it possible for me to pursue my dual passion of communicating the fun and excitement of science.”

In 2012, Dr Wiles was the recipient of the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communicators Award.

Wireless charging takes out top science prize Peter Griffin Nov 12

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The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were announced this afternoon in Wellington and saw University of Auckland take out the bulk of the prizes which are collectively worth $1 million.

Professor John Boys and Professor Grant Covic

Professor John Boys and Professor Grant Covic

See the official release below outlining the achievements of Professors John Boys and Grant Covic who claimed the top prize, worth $500,000, for their inductive charging technology that could revolutionise how electric vehicles are charged both while stationary and on the move.

Other winners included:

The Prime Minister’s 2013 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize of $200,000 goes to Dr Benjamin O’Brien, who has pioneered the development of small, light and soft, stretchy sensors that measure movement of the human body and transmit the information to a smart phone app. He is CEO at StretchSense Limited, where he is commercialising his cutting-edge research, and is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute.

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Science Teacher Prize has been won by Fenella Colyer, Head of Physics at South Auckland’s Manurewa High School. She is the driving force behind a 30 percent increase in the past two years in the number of Maori and Pasifika students studying physics, with their pass rate rising to 81 percent and exceeding the national average. Fenella demystifies science by tailoring teaching programmes to individual student abilities and interests, embedding literacy skills into each module. Fenella receives $50,000 and Manurewa High School receives $100,000.

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Future Scientist Prize has been won by Thomas Morgan of Marlborough Boys’ College, Blenheim. The Year 13 student completed a detailed project showing oyster mushrooms have the potential to be enriched with Vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. His study could help address Vitamin D deficiency, which is linked to osteoporosis, a major cause of suffering and disability. Tom receives a scholarship of $50,000 to help pay for tertiary studies.

Dr Benjamin O’Brien

Dr Benjamin O’Brien

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Science Media Communication Prize has been presented to Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland where she is a Senior Research Fellow and leads the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab. Dr Wiles is researching the uses of bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms, to help understand and combat infectious diseases. She has become a regular science media commentator and newspaper contributor, blogger and creator of YouTube videos. She wins $50,000, with a further $50,000 allocated for development of her science media communication skills.

Release on the supreme prize winners:

Two University of Auckland professors, who were continually told that their idea for transferring electricity without cables was both impossible and crazy, have won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Professors John Boys and Grant Covic have pioneered wireless or inductive power transfer technology and coined IPT terminology globally. Their technology is used throughout the world, from factories that depend on automated systems or clean-room environments, to charging electric vehicles (EV).

For years, Covic and Boys, who today accepted the $500,000 prize, left meetings with potential funders empty handed. That changed in 1990, when Japanese company Daifuku, took a chance on the two engineers, investing significantly in their research, which is licensed through the university’s commercial arm, Auckland UniServices Ltd. For Daifuku, they created the world’s first fully controllable IPT system combining high efficiency and high power. On the back of the technology, Daifuku has become one of the world’s largest automated, clean room manufacturers and is a preferred supplier to electronic manufacturers such as Intel and Samsung.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

At least 70 percent of the world’s LCD screens and other electronic equipment requiring computer chips are manufactured on systems using the prize-winning technology. Vehicle brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, also rely on it. Theme park rides and roadway lighting in traffic tunnels throughout the world, including Wellington’s Terrace tunnel, are also powered and controlled by the Boys and Covic innovation.

In the late 1990s, the team’s focus turned to inductive power and charging systems for electric vehicles, automatic guided vehicles and robotics. In May 2010, a company, HaloIPT, was spun out to develop the technology further for electric vehicles and, in late 2011, it was sold to Qualcomm, a United States Fortune 500 company.

The resulting return to Auckland Uniservices is more than 50 times the original pre-seed investment and it is believed to be the most successful deal for any New Zealand university or crown research institute start-up company.

“Part of our success is working with very good companies and partnering with them long term, for at least a decade, sometimes 20 years,” says Covic.

“If you don’t get that one on one trust in a relationship, it won’t work,” says Boys. “Everything became feasible because of the great relationship we had with Daifuku.”

“You need to work with companies that have the funding to enable you to keep advancing new ideas to try to take it to the next phase. After UniServcies signed with Daifuku to develop a prototype, they were selling systems inside of 12 months – that’s staggeringly fast uptake of new technology,” says Boys.

In the past four years alone, their work has attracted more than $20 million in research funding. Income is also flowing from license fees, which are set to increase rapidly from 2015 as new inventions are commercialised.

The next frontier for the engineers is developing in-road wireless charging, eliminating the need for plug-in battery chargers and enabling cars to recharge as they travel along highways. They aim to lower the cost and battery weight, increase the power and make cars more efficient while using green energy, such as solar or wind.

“We’ve been told the idea of inductive power systems in roads is too way out to have any real chance of success,” says Boys. Both, however, believe that within five years the technology will be able to recharge electric vehicles from in-road systems over short stretches of selected highway and buses will be able to recharge as they drive over extended bus stops or lanes.

The team has garnered success by exploring the ‘what ifs’ rather than being driven by the ‘here and now’ but capturing the ‘here and now’ funding to explore what’s needed in five years.

“We spend part of our time listening to the commercial world and solving their needs for today, but the most significant technology shifts happen because they allow us to do blue sky research, providing what they need before they recognise they even need it,” says Covic.

A big motivator for the team is creating new industry for New Zealand and diversifying the country’s reliance on traditional agricultural production.

“EV development provides a fantastic opportunity for New Zealand companies to design new systems and equipment for these vehicles. It is already providing jobs for bright students. We are doing something that is globally important.”

The prize money will enable blue sky research alongside partners so New Zealand remains at the cutting edge of IPT.

“It’s a journey of discovery – one stone might have a fairy princess under it and the rest might have frogs but you don’t know until you’ve turned them all over so you need to look in every possible direction,” says Boys.

The 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were presented to winners on Tuesday 12 November at the Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

$59 million in Marsden grants – who got what? Peter Griffin Oct 29


The annual Marsden funding round has been announced with $59 million allocated to 109 projects across the New Zealand science system.

The full list of winning projects is here. Congratulations to all the winners. Competition for the funding is intense – 1157 applications were received this year, equating to a funding success rate of 9.4 per cent.

That appears to be up slightly on previous years, probably owing to the fact that this year is a “record” funding year.

Science and Innovation minister Steven Joyce explained:

“The larger amount available this year to fund these proposals is due to the Government’s regular increases to the fund since it came into office five years ago. In Budget 2013, a further $20 million was allocated over four years to the Fund, and that has made a real difference. The Marsden Fund is now 37 per cent larger than it was in 2008/09.”

Victoria University was quick out of the gates to crow about its achievement – a record 21 funded projects worth $11.2 million.

Victoria’s Professor Charles Daugherty, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Research), said:

“The successful projects demonstrate the diversity and breadth of research being carried out at Victoria, as evidenced by Victoria’s Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) ranking, in April of this year, as first among New Zealand universities based on the research performance of its academic staff.”

Crown research institute, Plant & Food Research scored two grants:

“The emergence of plants onto land was one of Earth’s major evolutionary events, but at that time the environment had a number of challenges, including high levels of damaging UV radiation,” says Dr Kevin Davies. “Our research will look at liverworts, the closest living relative of the first land plants, and study how these plants adapt the production of pigment molecules to counteract the effects of UV. This will, in turn, provide some understanding of how plants may adapt and respond to shifts in environmental conditions as a result of predicted global climate change.”

The University of Otago secured 22 projects totalling $13 million.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie said that with the increase in the size of the fund announced in the Budget, he had hoped Otago might receive a greater amount of funding this year.

“The highly competitive nature of the funding means that the awarding of two or three extra grants for projects close to the border-line can make the difference between a good year and a great year for funding from this source.”

“However, it is good to see that the fund, with its focus on research excellence, continues to support work across humanities, business and social sciences, as it does across physical sciences, biomedical sciences and health research, when the successful projects are viewed in totality.”


The funded project leaderboard

University of Auckland 35

University of Otago 22

Victoria University 21

University of Canterbury 11

Massey University 7

GNS Science 4

Waikato University 3

Plant & Food 2

Agresearch 1

Callaghan Innovation 1

Landcare Research 1


The five largest funding allocations

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 1.35.45 PM



Science, social media and sexual harassment Peter Griffin Oct 17


Like myself, many who work in and around science will have been shocked and dismayed at the controversy that has engulfed Scientific American and its blogs editor Bora Zivkovic in the last week.

If you aren’t up to date, this cringeworthy incident started here with the deplorable treatment of science writer Dr. Danielle N. Lee by an editor at the website and quickly unravelled to engulf the managing editor of Scientific American and more significantly, Zivkovic, a scientist and leading science blogger and proponent of social media’s role in communicating science.

The Biology Online debacle, in which an online editor referred to Dr Lee as an “urban whore” has been dealt with – the editor was fired and the management unreservedly apologised to Dr. Lee.

Scientific American‘s role in the affair – its editors pulled Dr. Lee’s blog outlining the bizarre Biology Online exchange from their site, has also been resolved, albeit messily with Scientific American having learnt some painful lessons in the process.

What hasn’t been resolved is an issue that the DNLee incident brought to light – a year-old allegation of sexual harassment levelled at Zivkovic by writer and playwright Monica Byrne. Dismayed by the DNLee affair, Byrne this week outed Zivkovic as the man making the creepy and inappropriate advances during a business meeting she had with him last year. Zivkovic has confirmed the incident took place and apologised, offering by way of explanation:

It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.

However, the issue has ballooned online as two related narratives emerge – comments left on Byrne’s blog and elsewhere suggest Zivkovic has a track record of this type of inappropriate behaviour and the science community has been accused of closing ranks to protect Zivkovic, who is known for  supporting emerging science writers and bloggers all over the world.

I know Bora – as he is universally known, only peripherally – I had a long Skype call with him a couple of years ago in which he generously gave me valuable advice about a science book project I was working on. But some of our Scibloggers know him personally and count him as a friend. He is the co-founder of Science Online, a leading annual conference that attracts a who’s-who of scientists and science communicators.

Today Science Online announced his resignation from the board of directors.

This is a major fall for a prominent member of the science community.

It may well get worse for Bora – his position at Scientific American is looking increasingly tenuous as the tone of online commentary grows increasingly hostile towards him.

Some friends and colleagues have publicly expressed their support for Bora while at the same time deploring his actions, a position others see as incongruous.

This chain of events seems to have opened a festering sore and emboldened people to discuss the sexual harassment and misogyny some see as being widespread in science.

Recently, the US scientist Dr Pamela Gay visited New Zealand for the New Zealand Skeptics’ conference and during a panel discussion I chaired, expressed her dismay at the sexual harassment of women in the US skeptics community.

Social media and the web in both these cases have become a safe channel to air grievances, recount experiences and, yes, point the finger.

Women who have been sexually harassed are reluctant to out the offender to their superiors for fear of repercussions. That’s understandable. I wonder whether this is an even bigger issue in a small scientific community like New Zealand, where options for career progression are more limited than in the US.

But nevertheless, what I find quite alarming is the unsubstantiated rumours and allegations now being levelled at Zivkovic widely across the web:

Byrne’s post – and Zivkovic’s admission, seem to have given people license to dish the dirt in the comments sections of blogs and in tweets and Google+ updates.

Another science blogger has since outlined a “not quite harassment” incident involving Zivkovic that made her uncomfortable. Was it truly inappropriate behaviour? Read and judge for yourself – that’s what the writer seems to be encouraging us to do.

A man whose reputation has largely been built online (Zivkovic has around 25,000 Twitter followers) now has a reputation, warranted or not, as a serial sexual harasser.

Some will say he deserves everything he gets, he’s already owned up to inappropriate behaviour in relation to Monica Byrne.

But the right thing for those making allegations from the safety of cyberspace is to now formalise it – go to his superiors, make a formal complaint.

This whole chain of recent events forms the inciting incident, but it needs to end with a decent examination of the other allegations if its to be anything other than trial by social media with the scientific community eating one of its own.

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