Archive Science and Society

Budget 2015: What’s in it for science? Peter Griffin May 21

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Budget 2015 is done and dusted and it appears there are few surprises for the science sector, other than an interesting move to replicate the success of the independent, Nelson-based Cawthron Institute.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.29.12 pm$25 million in funding has been allocated over three years to establish “between one and three” new Regional Research Institutes outside of the main centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Regional economic development seems to be front of mind with this move, which will see private organisations chip in to develop the institutes.

There’s no indication of what types of institutes they will be – presumably a contestable funding round will be launched, much like the recent CoRE selection rounds.

Hmm, maybe the Hawkes Bay and viticulture, Dunedin for high-tech as the country’s Gigatown? Who knows?

The institutes will leverage off the “unique business, technology, and economic growth opportunities in a region”.

With an increased number of Centres of Research Excellence recently funded by the Government, here then is an additional opportunity for a focus on specific areas of research.

Other science-related Budget highlights

- An $80 million operating boost over four years to R&D growth grants administered by Callaghan Innovation – announced in April, this will support innovative Kiwi businesses carrying out research and development by contributing 20 per cent of their R&D programme costs.
- The science and innovation system performance report and data collection programme – the first in a series of annual reports on the performance of New Zealand’s science and innovation system which will be published later this year. Funding of around $3 million over four years will be met by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.
- An international investment attraction programme – a new $1 million programme to attract multinational companies to undertake R&D in New Zealand will start in 2015/16, funded by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.
Science in Society – lifting New Zealanders’ engagement with science and technology is the key focus of the national strategic plan for Science in Society: A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri I Te Mahara.

- An additional $2.2 million in 2015/16 will support the plan’s implementation, funded by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.

“The additional funding announced in Budget 2015 will bring the Government’s total investment in science to more than $1.5 billion in 2015/16,” Mr Joyce says.


Carrick Graham still gunning for public health researchers Peter Griffin May 13


Dirty Politics. Remember that? It seems like a bad memory, a fleeting, nightmarish glimpse into the inner workings of New Zealand politics and the interplay between politicians and the hired guns who do their dirty work.

Carrick Graham

Carrick Graham

As I’ve written before, one of the most disturbing revelations in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was the coordinated campaign to smear public health researchers advocating evidence-based interventions to cut obesity and smoking and alcohol-related diseases.

Ten months and an election later, has anything changed? Not really, as this month’s North & South magazine reveals. Journalist Peter Newport had to endure “six months of drinking coffee with [Carrick] Graham” to secure an on-the-record interview with the shadowy lobbyist linked last year to some of the most pointed smears published on the Whaleoil blog.

The North & South piece is a fascinating insight into the 43 year-old, who started his career as a cigarette sales rep and still counts Big Tobacco companies among his clients. It also suggests that the Dirty Politics publicity did nothing to temper his appetite for running interference on well-meaning and credible enemies.

Writes Newport:

“There’s no sign of fatigue, it looks more like a limbering up for a main act still in the future”.

The piece reveals that when Newport visited Graham’s Parnell office, he was greeted with “an array of passport-sized photographs, stuck to the wall like a TV cop show operations room, linked by colour thread. These are his current targets, complete with their affiliated organisations and their available budgets”.

The current targets, he adds, are “people linked to the HRC, the Health Research Council. This is the major funder on behalf of central government of biomedical, public health, Maori health and Pacific health research… these are the people Graham is currently being paid to attack”.

At the top of the mosaic is a photo of Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland. Swinburn has been repeatedly attacked in blogs running on the Whaleoil blog, that Carrick Graham is alleged to have fed to Cameron Slater to run.

So Swinburn is still on the hit list, presumably alongside Doug Sellman, Jim Mann and numerous other respected public health researchers who dare to question Big Food, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, who likely form the bulk of Graham’s client list.

Interviewed for the piece, Swinburn uses an oft-quoted line from Gandhi to explain the fight he is engaged in with the likes of Graham:

“First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you… and then you win.”

The enemies of the public health researchers are clearly in the fight stage – how long the war continues is anyone’s guess, but knowing scientists, few of them have the stomach for this type of thing. It will be up to Swinburn and others to take the barbs on behalf of their lower-profile colleagues.

We need to support these scientists, now more than ever.

Pick up a copy of North & South, which also has some good commentary in the Carrick Graham piece from physicist and Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy, who in his usual pragmatic way pointed out that there needs to be some common ground carved out with Graham and his Big Business backers.

Says Hendy:

“Scientists acknowledge that business and industry should have a voice at the table, but what worries us about this [Dirty Politics] situation is that it wasn’t declared. It was a mechanism to fund what appeared to be a public voice, but scientists are very careful about declaring their interests. Industry should do the same.”

That’s the important thing. Graham’s war is a covert one – we still don’t know all the players who fund him. Newport was stonewalled when he went in search of them and tried to establish how they fitted into Dirty Politics.

On a related note, this great piece from Keith Ng looks at the media’s role in Dirty Politics. Keith appears to be saying that the media failed to gain any traction on Dirty Politics because they remained a “passive observer” reporting the facts revealed, approaching pundits for comment, but never really “forcing the powerful to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and holding them to account”.

 ”It’s more than just saying it and walking away.”

That’s pretty much what the media did, unable to get a real handle on some of the issues, including the Carrick Graham smear campaign.

Keith also rightly points out that there was just an absence of natural justice in the whole treatment of the Dirty Politics revelations. People were entitled to coherent explanations, to transparency, to people in power taking seriously the allegations made. Instead they were met with further obfuscation, misinformation and weasel words.

The media reported it all, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Should they have gone further? Keith thinks so.

“By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There’s an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they’re invited to do so by journalists.”

Indeed, the vacuum will be filled. Which is why it is important that scientists are able to present the facts to the public, even in the face of sophisticated campaigns to undermine them.

When Nigel Latta blows stuff up Peter Griffin Apr 23


Psychologist Nigel Latta has a new show running on TV One: Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up.

It is great TV, science-related but presented in a very pop-science format, with shades of Mythbusters and the types of science shows you’ll see browsing the Discovery Channel – plenty of explosions and slow motion photography.

Nigel Latta

Nigel Latta

The first episode kicked off on Sunday night with a bang – or a series of them, as Latta explored what it might be like to be struck by lightning.

The bulk of the show saw him visiting the University of Canterbury’s High Voltage Laboratory where a number of pretty cool looking experiments were undertaken involving blowing up potatoes and sausages, a life-size dummy of Nigel and even zapping a small car with him sitting in it.

There was a Faraday suit and a Faraday cage and celebrity chef Michael Van de Elzen being zapped with low-power shocks as he tried to make a tart. All good fun and seemingly over in a flash – its a half hour show, which with adverts goes by very quickly.

It successfully gets across some interesting concepts about basic science.

The Herald called the show “educational broccoli hidden in a deliciously entertaining tart”. Fair summary.

But reviewer Alex Casey went on to comment:

The demonstrations work as they are fronted solely by Nige, rather than a dowdy old “expert”. Like the audience, he is seemingly learning as he goes and relishing the revelations.

Really? Is that the perception of scientists?

Latta is a great talent, no doubt, but I can think of half a dozen scientists who would have been equally great fronting that show and would definitely not have fallen into “dowdy old expert” territory.

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Which made me wonder about the celebrity host versus scientist fronting popular science shows. Granted, Latta has the scientific credentials. This interesting Herald profile notes that he obtained a BSc in zoology at the University of Otago then a masters in marine science. At the University of Auckland he did a masters degree in psychology gaining first class honours, then topped it off with a diploma in clinical psychology.

As the Herald piece indicates, a lot of people wonder why the hell we should listen to Nigel Latta when he roams far and wide beyond his main area of expertise – psychology. He’s basically become a TV celebrity as his books and TV shows have explored an increasingly wide range of subjects, that no doubt feed his curious mind.

I don’t have a problem with him going from serial killer psychology to the breeding habits of penguins, to our alcohol consumption . Latta is what they call in the TV world “compelling talent” and his science background gives him an appreciation for evidence and the process of science. He is basically a science-savvy journalist exploring issues in a very relatable way. Fair play to him.

I think by and large, he’s done the TV watching public a service and his wide appeal has allowed shows on topics as diverse as Antarctica and inequality to be produced that probably wouldn’t have got the green light in other types of formats.

However, I don’t think Latta is the only one with a science background who can do this, even if it sometimes seems to be the case.

We’ve got others with a science bent that could front prime time TV shows as effectively. But my worry is that Latta is now so ubiquitous that he is now our go-to front person for popular science of any shade.

Will we see Nigel in his next show talking about earthquakes, or climate change? Maybe. It will rate well and could have cut through with people who wouldn’t otherwise watch a show on earthquake probability and seismic risk.

But it is also time for other budding communicators and science talents to step up. We need a diversity of science communicators who can appeal to broad audiences. My sense is that we have them, but that they need our support to break through and ultimately make the short list when production companies run down their list of “compelling talent” and potential hosts.

Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up, Sundays, 8pm, TV One

When balance goes out the window Peter Griffin Apr 14


A few weeks ago, for the first time ever, I took a complaint to the Press Council against a newspaper.

Times-Age on homeopathy

Times-Age on homeopathy

I’ve been the subject of a Press Council complaint in the past, one that wasn’t upheld. I know it is time consuming and stressful responding to a complaint, so I didn’t make my own complaint lightly.

But I was so dismayed by the lack of balance, accuracy and fairness in the Wairarapa Times-Age‘s report on homeopathy and the editor’s unwillingness to discuss it constructively, that I felt I had no choice but to complain.

The decision on that complaint is in – my complaint was not upheld.

A very similar complaint from fellow blogger Mark Hanna was not upheld either. Mark has an excellent summary of the entire story here. Sciblogger Grant Jacobs also has some commentary here.

I’m not going to pick through the finer details in this post.

I fully accept the Press Council’s ruling and thank it for considering it.

But I am nevertheless concerned by it.

The 1st principle of the Press Council looks to uphold the core values of journalism – accuracy, fairness and balance:

1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

But there’s an important exception to the above:

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

That exception to the principle resulted in our complaint being thrown out.

Here we had a really bad piece of journalism which the Press Council admitted was unbalanced and deficient. Several astonishing claims about the efficacy of homeopathy made by practitioners of homeopathy and family members of people treated with it, went totally unchallenged. The reporter acknowledged she’d tried to obtain balancing comment but that no one had gotten back to her by deadline.

The impression the reader is left with is that homeopathy has real potential as an effective treatment against serious diseases like cancer. The massive problem is that there is no scientific basis for the efficacy of homeopathy. People who use it to treat serious diseases and conditions offer false hope to people. This is potentially a threat to public health, so you’d think a paper looking after the interests of its readers would give pause before publishing it.

But I went through the Wairarapa Times Age archive and discovered that every story I could find back to 2010 were similarly unbalanced and gave uncritical coverage to homeopathy and its practitioners. The editor wasn’t able to produce any stories to the contrary. So the newspaper has effectively been giving homeopaths a free ride for years to make their unfounded claims. No one has ever thought to balance out those claims with some views from actual experts who know how shonky homeopathy is.

But here’s the rub – the paper doesn’t have to provide any balance because homeopathy and its lack of credibility has been discussed extensively elsewhere in the media.

The paper effectively doesn’t ever have to provide balance as long as say, TVNZ, the New York Times and Google News features decent science-based coverage debunking homeopathic treatments. As the Press Council pointed out:

The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narrowly as the complainant contends and should not be.

A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

So where does that leave us? Take ongoing, contentious stories – climate change, child poverty, GST on web purchases – literally whatever you like. The ruling suggests that you can repeatedly publish unbalanced reports on any issue, as long as some other, maybe more responsible media outlets, do their job properly and deliver balanced journalism.

So balance can be the exception, not the rule. Unless its an obscure or new issue that hasn’t been widely discussed somewhere else in the media, you can get away with consistently only ever telling one side of the story, as the Wairarapa Times-Age has done for years when it comes to homeopathy.

So there it is.  I lecture at journalism schools all over the country. What am I going to say the next time I stand up in front of a group of aspiring young journos?: “Don’t worry about balance or accuracy or fairness, as long as you can Google some coverage of the issue somewhere else out there on the internet that covers the contrary view, you are home free!”

No. Because balance is still actually really important and most outlets get that.

The exception makes sense when you can at least show sometime in the past you attempted to provide some balance on an issue. But its interpretation in this case seems to me to suggest that a publication can abdicate its responsibility to provide fair and balanced journalism to its readers again and again as long as other publications do their job.

In a week when much angst has been voiced over the state of the media, precipitated by the prospect of Campbell Live going off air, that’s certainly something to give me pause.

New media rules hit UK government scientists Peter Griffin Apr 02

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Science communication bodies have criticised a UK Government code for civil servants requiring ministerial approval before they talk to the media.

Fiona Fox

Fiona Fox

The UK’s Civil Service Code was updated this month requiring the pre-authorisation, which in theory also applies to scientists working for the government in units such as the Met Office and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.

In an open letter to cabinet secretary Francis Maude, the UK Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a science PR and communications network, wrote that the minor wording change could have a major chilling effect on government scientists speaking to the press on controversial issues.

Fiona Fox UK SMC director Fiona Fox told the Guardian: “What we need are messages from on high that are supportive and back scientists sharing their evidence and expertise to better inform these debates. Unless the situation is clarified, this will have a chilling effect. Scientists will keep quiet to be on the safe side.”

In an editorial on the issue, science journal Nature said changes to the Civil Service Code may not become a topic of debate in next month’s UK general election, but that scientists should “find their voices again” and question its meaning.

“Any block on transparency and openness is a step backwards. The government that takes over after the general election should clarify what it wants from its scientists, and how the rule change alters that. It should consider an exemption for researchers talking to the media about their work in acknowledged areas of public interest, such as climate or health.”

The New Zealand situation

Government-employed scientists working in New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes generally can speak to the media as long as interviews are approved by their institute’s communications staff. But major controversial issues are often dealt with by senior ministry spokespeople, so scientists are told to defer to the officials. Many CRIs also undertake contracted work for ministries so are contractually obliged to refer all media queries to the ministry they are working for.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists will explore the issue next week in its Wellington conference Going Public: Scientists speaking out on controversial issues. The conference will feature journalists, scientists and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, who is developing a scientist’s code of conduct for public engagement with the Royal Society of New Zealand.

When New Zealand science news goes viral Peter Griffin Jan 13

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“Wooo, there’s New Zealand did ya!” Wrote one commenter on the Facebook page “I F*cking Love Science” last week.

Okay, hardly the most articulate response to a story, but one that expressed the pride in seeing New Zealand science receiving exposure and recognition on a global scale. The story attracting attention was about researchers from the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute who made the remarkable discovery that a particular type of DNA can move between cells in an animal. As IFLScience reported it:

Not only could these important findings help further our understanding of cancer and other diseases, but they raise the tantalizing possibility that one day, it might be possible to replace faulty, disease-causing genes with synthetic, custom-designed mitochondrial DNA in a bid to fight a wide variety of illnesses.

The research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism last week. It was picked up by IFLS, the less than three year-old Facebook page founded by Elise Andrews, which attracts a staggering 45 million unique monthly visitors and 150 million page views.

After a few days on IFLS, the story had racked up:

87,000 Facebook likes


26,000 Facebook shares


132 Upvotes on Reddit

Malaghan reported that in the wake of the IFLS exposure it had experienced a “1200% increase in web traffic, especially from America, Canada and Australia”. Professor Mike Berridge, the Malaghan Institute’s Cancer Cell Biology Group Leader was quoted in a press release as saying,

“I am hugely encouraged by this recognition by the international community, and hope it can lead to further development of our work here in New Zealand.  The ultimate goal of cancer research is to stop the suffering many people experience with this disease, but cellular research often surprises.  It may be that this new understanding offers future treatments for some of the many other debilitating diseases caused by defective mitochondria.”

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Social news and science

Other New Zealand science stories have also achieved significant traction recently via new media channels.

In May, 2014, NIWA reported that the tiny marine animal Protulophila, that was thought extinct for the past four million years, had actually just been found living in New Zealand waters. IFLS picked up the story which resulted in 89,000 Facebook likes.

An article sourced from Te Papa Museum and AUT University inviting people to view a live dissection of a colossal squid received 31,000 Facebook likes on IFLS in September.

A story from New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust about the discovery in the ice of a 100 year-old notebook that belonged to a member of Captain Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition attracted 66,000 likes on the IFLS Facebook page.

Impressive stats, and a quick look through the comments suggests it is mainly overseas Facebook users reading and sharing these articles.

But how valuable are all those ‘likes’ really? On that point there is heated debate.

Some marketing experts estimate an individual like can be worth $200 or more, while research giant Forrester puts the value at zero – it claims a like represents just the potential to undertake an action, not an action itself.

For a not-for-profit that relies on donations and grants to do its research, a major boost in internet traffic is very valuable for the Malaghan Institute. Even if a tiny number of those website visitors decide to donate money as a result of seeing the post on IFLS, that’s a big positive for Malaghan.

Some have even come up with a formula for calculating the value of likes of your own Facebook page.

Other marketers argue that you can’t look at Facebook likes in the way we do other forms of media promotion, such as advertising in newspapers. Likes can represent a much greater engagement with readers and supporters which has significant longterm value. In this slightly outdated (2010) presentation from Facebook’s Justin Osofsky, he notes that:

- Facebook likes means increased referral traffic to your website as articles containing links to your site are spread through the friend networks of everyone clicking the ‘like’ button.

- People who like articles visit 5.3x more websites than those who don’t like articles.

- People who like articles have 2..4x more friends than those who don’t, so attracting those likers has a positive knock-on effect.

- Users who click like have a median age of 34, compared to 51 for newspaper subscribers, so creating content that attracts Facebook likes can be a good way of attracting a younger audience.

So if people are liking your page, they are providing a valuable amplifier for your content that could help you reach a younger audience. This is why Facebook has proven to be a useful platform for promoting science content.

The Australian science news site ScienceAlert has achieved significant success by leveraging Facebook, exactly the same way IFLS has. It promotes Australian and New Zealand science news and has attracted 6.3 million likes.

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Scientists are achieving success on other platforms too, including Youtube.

In the run-up to Christmas, AUT University Professor of Applied Ecology and Sciblogger, Steve Pointing, released a light-hearted video explaining the science of Christmas. It has accumulated over 100,000 views on Youtube.

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The team at the University of Nottingham behind the hugely successful Periodic Table of Videos know the value of leveraging social media. Their short videos have amassed 260 million views on Youtube.

What seems to work?

It doesn’t take long, browsing the posts on IFLS and science-related videos on Youtube to get an idea for what gets that viral effect:

- Unique and novel stories with well written headlines and introductory blurbs that genuinely flag something new and important.

- Eye-catching and novel images – some of the most-liked posts on the IFLS Facebook pages are simply beautiful images of nature.

- Short videos (2 – 3 minutes) that explore a science-related concept in a slightly quirky or unusual way.

At the Science Media Centre, we’ve been undertaking a study of how New Zealand science-related institutions use social media which we will be publishing in the next few weeks.


Top ten weirdest science stories of 2014 Peter Griffin Dec 19

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

Sorry hipsters, we hit peak beard

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


There was a bigfoot-step forward in yeti research

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


Eeeeeuuuugh! A snog transferred 80m bacteria

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


‘Women’ with willies made us wince

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


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

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


Robopenguin rolled into our hearts

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


The oldest fossilised sperm was found, and it was enormous

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


Female hurricanes were deadlier than males

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


The oldest human poo revealed Neanderthals made friends with salad

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


Scientists found a shocking way to induceInception-style dreams

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


Public attitudes to science and technology – key takeaways Peter Griffin Dec 04

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The latest Nielsen survey to gauge New Zealanders’ attitudes towards science and technology is the largest and most thorough one yet and reveals much to be positive about but also several areas of concern.

Nielsen surveyed a representative sample of 3,004 New Zealanders over the age of 15, (2,504 online and 500 by phone), asking them a series of questions about their views on science and technology.

Similar surveys were done in 2002, 2005 and 2010 and the bulk of the 2010 questions have been retained for continuity. However, this survey has a couple of significant differences – it focusses on how Kiwis engage with science, so as to give us insights into the best ways to reach different audiences, and it lines up with Eurobarometer survey questions and 2014 the ANU University study into Australian attitudes towards science, to allow us to more easily compare our attitudes towards science and technology to other countries.

So what did the latest Nielsen research find?

The good

- Broadly speaking, Kiwis are interested in science and technology and think it is important not just for them personally, but for society, the environment and the economy.

- 90% of those surveyed agreed that science is an important subject for people to study at school and 83% agreed that it was a worthwhile career to pursue.

- Kiwis are more engaged with science and technology than they were in 2010. Compared with 2010 the “science follower” group survey participants identified with has increased, while the “mainstream” and “disengaged” segments have decreased. That means more people identify themselves as enjoying following science and less people have a lack of trust and interest in it. That’s a very positive trend.

- Engagement with science and technology via the media is very high (87%) which shows that despite the proliferation of social media and fragmentation of media channels, the population in general still has high exposure to science and technology via TV, online news reports, newspapers and magazines.

- 44% of those surveyed said they had donated money to support scientific research, showing healthy support in the community for such causes.

- When it comes to how interested in science Kiwis profess to be, we do very well compared to European countries (81% of New Zealanders are interested, compared to the best European country Sweden at 77%)

- Kiwis feel much better informed about science than people in European countries do (we rank second 62% behind Denmark 65% in this measure).

So all of that is very positive. We are more engaged with science and technology than we were five years ago, we compare really well internationally and overall, Kiwis value science and consider it important to study at school and pursue as a career.


The not so good

- Only 59% consider science important to their daily lives.

- 42% of people say they get too little information about science, a fair chunk of the population, suggesting there is still a significant deficit in knowledge based on lack of access to information about science and technology in a suitable format.

- A reasonable proportion (35%) agreed that science and technology are too specialised to understand and 51% agreed that there is too much conflicting information about science and technology “making it hard to know what to believe”.

- Young females are less into technology as an important topic to study at school.

- 62% agreed that scientists need to listen more to what ordinary people think, suggesting a bit of a disconnect between the work scientists are doing and the priorities of average New Zealanders.

- Only 39% agreed that Mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) has a role in science. This is an area that has been targeted for promotion by the Government and increasingly by iwis, so that’s not an encouraging result.

- Males feel significantly better informed about science than females.

- There is low engagement with science-based products or practices at work. Only 15% had undertaken additional scientific training for work.

- In some cases Māori and Pacific Island people are less likely to agree that science is really important.

So there’s plenty of room for improvement. The survey gives us a good base to work from in terms of figuring out ways to more effectively engage New Zealanders with science and technology.

What is really useful, is that the survey gives us a decent baseline for the formats via which we engage with science and shows how different demographic groups access science and technology information in different ways.

Source: Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology 2014
Source: Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology 2014

You can download the Nielsen survey here.

When scientists don’t speak out – gag orders and funding fears revealed Peter Griffin Nov 03

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There’s been much debate about the forthcoming Code of Conduct on Public Engagement the Royal Society of New Zealand is developing.

This piece of work is part of the Government’s Science in Society Strategy and is laid out in Annex 4 of this document, which outlines initiatives that will be rolled out as part of the Strategy including:

“The RSNZ will lead development of a code of practice on engagement for scientists. To begin 2014/15.”

I was involved in a expert reference group for the Science in Society project so I heard about the proposed code early on.

From my perspective, it would be useful to clarify the type of interactions with the public scientists can engage in. I manage the Science Media Centre, which collects and publishes commentary from scientists often at short notice and often on controversial issues. As such, we rely on the ability of scientists to be able to speak freely on issues in their areas of expertise that are of importance to society. We quote more university scientists than Crown research institute scientists because the former group has more freedom to comment – and turn things around quickly for the media.

The situation varies by organisation – some university departments tightly manage access to the media, particularly if the scientists are involved in industry collaborations. Others would rather journalists deal directly with scientists and have little interest in monitoring what their scientists are commenting on. Some CRIs require all media-related queries to go through a central communications unit. Others let scientists use their own judgement and talk to the media without prior authorisation – according to pre-agreed ground rules.

We navigate all scenarios, not always successfully. The point is, there is no one way of engaging with the public or the media. I’d love more clarity around what scientists can and can’t say and when.

From the answers to the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ most recent survey, if appears scientists would also like the ground rules clarified.

When asked in the survey: “Have ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy, or by fear of losing research funding, the results were as follow:

Source: NZAS Survey 2014

Source: NZAS Survey 2014

So that is around 40 per cent of survey respondents who have been prevented from making a public statement, either because their management said they couldn’t or because they feared having funding cut.

The anonymous comments collected as part of the survey and published on the NZAS website outline numerous examples of this. They include:

[redacted] terminated my employment because of unauthorised media comment


We are expressly prevented from making any comment to the public without prior approval. On contentious issues such as GMOs and plant import we are not to make any comment at all under any circumstance. That role is now exclusively the mandate of management.


In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academics speaking in public on controversial issues or on issues that might impact on the reputation of the institution itself. These attempts have been in breach of the principle of academic freedom and undermine our statutory duty to act as critic and conscience of society.

This mirrors the sort of anecdotes I regularly hear as scientists sheepishly tell me why they can’t contribute to one of our SMC expert round-ups on an issue in their area of expertise.

On the other hand, there may be good reasons why it is inappropriate for a scientist to go public on an issue. Maybe a colleague is far better qualified to talk about it, is more media savvy and better at communicating risk and uncertainty.

When is and isn’t it legitimate for management to instruct scientists not to speak out on an issue relevant to their area of expertise?

This is the sort of thing I hope the consultation around the development of the Code of Practice will flush out. The NZAS survey is a helpful precursor to that.

Dirty Politics: Learning from Washington lobbyists’ play book Peter Griffin Aug 21

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If the covertly organised smear campaigns and secretly-funded attacks on public health experts outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics seem more suited to an episode of House of Cards, that’s because they could easily be lifted from the dirty politics of Washington D.C. that inspired aspects of the show.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.02.32 pmAs I blogged about earlier this week, Nicky Hager alleges in Dirty Politics that Cameron Slater has been paid by a lobbyist to run pre-written blog posts on the Whale Oil website under his own name, posts that attack individuals raising concerns about alcohol, tobacco, sugary beverages and obesity. The main accusations have been largely left unanswered by the key protagonists, people such as lobbyist Carrick Graham and Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich.

Meanwhile, we get an insight into what lobbyists in Washington D.C. will do on a much larger scale to influence discussion on health-related issues in the US. The Center for Public Integrity’s Wendell Potter, an insurance industry executive turned whistleblower, writes today about secret payments from a major health insurance lobby group to fund a TV ad campaign:

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the big lobbying and PR group for health insurers, secretly funneled US$1.593 million to its longtime ally, the National Federation of Independent Business, to pay for a TV ad targeting Democratic senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The ad blames Pryor for making it harder for small businesses to make a profit as a result of his vote for “Obamacare.” The ad didn’t mention that the funds to pay for it came from health insurers or that the spot was part of a continuing effort by AHIP to get Congress to eliminate a fee that was imposed on insurers to help offset the cost of expanding coverage to the uninsured.

The payments only came to light when the New York Times queried tax records which revealed the payments and the parties involved. It turns out that the US$1.6 million for the TV ads was a relatively modest spend.

As the National Journal reported in 2012, AHIP funnelled more than $100 million to the Chamber to finance it’s campaign to shape the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010. As with the Times’ disclosure of the AHIP-NFIB alliance, the AHIP-Chamber of Commerce relationship was discovered only after a couple of reporters checked tax filings.

Then, more broadly, there is this type of carry on…

Earlier this year, the National Republican Congressional Committee created several fake Democratic candidate websites. The organization’s latest effort is a brand new set of deceptive websites, this time designed to look like local news sources. The NRCC has created about two dozen “faux news sites,” the National Journal reported, all of which feature articles that “begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers.” After a few such paragraphs, the articles “gradually morph into more biting language.”

 Now you see where Whale Oil and his collaborators get their inspiration from… Dirty Politics details numerous points where the protagonists looked to US political tactics to inform their efforts here. Read the book or Google “rat f*cking” for more on one such tactic drawn from the Republican Party play book.

Concludes Potter:

That’s the way the game is played in Washington, where ethical principles that apply elsewhere are blatantly flouted. And where the consequence of getting caught in a lie or deception is rarely more severe than a bad PR day.

A bad PR day indeed for those implicated in the leaked emails.

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