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Science, startups and deciding to pivot Peter Griffin Jul 07

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It was an emotional weekend in Wellington.

There was the thrill of anticipation in the run-up to Saturday night’s clash between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders, then the emptiness of defeat as the Cake Tin emptied and thousands of yellow-clad rugby fans trudged home.

But at Creative HQ a stone’s throw from Courtenay Place where smug-looking Highlanders fans began their victorious pub crawl, 40 or so people beavered away oblivious to the game’s outcome.

They were involved in Startup Weekend – Science and Research, a weekend of frantic activity and creativity, that saw teams form on Friday night to work on science-related business ideas that had to be ready for pitching to a panel of high-powered judges on Sunday night.

The Paper Preen team practicing their pitch in front of Startup Weekend mentors

The Paper Preen team practicing their pitch in front of Startup Weekend mentors

I was one of fifteen or so mentor over the weekend who hopped between the teams helping them tease out their ideas, validate them and develop their business cases. It was a blast and while Startup Weekend has been running for years and all over the world, this was the first local event to focus on science and research-related projects. I hope it is the first of many, as I was truly impressed at the way the teams grew over the course of 54 hours.

Shaky beginnings

It wasn’t so confident a start. I arrived early on Friday afternoon to talk to participants about their pitches which were officially given at 5pm on Friday night with the aim of building teams around the most promising ideas. That 3pm pitch practice was an eye opener  – ideas that on the face of it weren’t that original or tackling a particularly compelling problem, business plans with more holes than a sieve, rambling presentations.

But that’s the whole point of Startup Weekend. You start with the germ of an idea and if a group of people buy into it and you, it takes shape over the next two days – or morphs into something else completely, which is what happened to several of the ideas floated on Friday afternoon.

The big pivot

After working late into Friday night, the teams, ranging in size from three to nine people, had got to grips with the initial idea and decided whether to run with it or throw it out. Of the six teams that went through Startup Weekend, four had pivoted by midday Saturday. It was great to see the teams finally close the book on an idea they had worked to death and move onto something more promising.

We had one team working on a robotic window cleaner they envisaged would roam around the outside of a building on a computer-guided path, cleaning windows and doing away with abseiling window cleaners. But some market research (ie: a few Google searches) revealed that many other companies had already developed robotic window cleaners with mixed results. The various Youtube videos of bulky robots trying to navigate vertical surfaces and clean them at the same time was enough to convince the Squeegee Robot team that this was a tall ask indeed. For starters, you need a robot that can navigate all sorts of buildings, not just the nice smooth ones with plate glass all over.

 

Winners Message in a Bottle delivering their pitch

Winners Message in a Bottle delivering their pitch

When the pivot came, I was surprised, but impressed. The team, largely made up of engineers and designers, threw out the concept of cleaning windows, instead focusing on developing a robot that would use sophisticated sensors to scan the external and internal structure of a building. It would still zoom around a building but would be suspended from a gantry system and wouldn’t need direct contact with the building surface to work effectively. Internally, the robot could simply move around the floor creating a 3D image of the room but also measuring the density and integrity of the walls and surrounding structures.

With thousands of earthquake-prone buildings in New Zealand in need of regular checks and preparation for upgrading to meet the building code, the team had a strong potential market opportunity. Some more research suggested that thorough surveying of a building can take up to three months, involve a large team and cost as much as $200,000 so there seemed to be scope for doing things more efficiently.

So Squeegee Robot became 3MASS and a much more promising proposition. Daniel, the electrical engineer who initially pitched on Friday night had initially wanted to develop a USB-powered hand warmer for video gamers living in cold Wellington flats.

10 Tips for Startup weekends

Having now participated in my first full Startup Weekend I’ve got a few suggestions for people going into one and seeking to build a team around their ideas:

1. Come into it with an idea you’ve thoroughly thought out and done some research on – there’s no point getting to Saturday morning and finding that someone else is already up and running and doing what you want to do.

2. Having said that, don’t be totally put off if others are already doing what you want to do. They may be doing it poorly and that industry may be ripe for disruption ie: the taxi industry and Uber.

3. Establish leadership in the team early, if its a large team, break it down into sub groups to work on different aspects of the problem.

4. Think about validation early – it can be hard to start from scratch on a weekend looking for experts to comment on the validity of your idea or its market potential. If you are an engineer, prime your engineering contacts that you may be in touch as you seek to validate the idea. Have some mobile numbers at the ready and be prepared to get as many views as possible – evidence of good valuation is an important part of the judging criteria.

5. Social enterprise is great, but the judges really want to see how this venture could be sustainable longterm. Don’t rely on sponsorship and grants, which are fickle. Show how you can generate revenue through literally getting organisations or people to buy into your idea.

6. Tell a story – the 5 minute pitch on Sunday night is all the judges see, not the journey the team has gone on. Make it a powerful, confident pitch. Paint a picture for us, use metaphor and analogy to get us engaged and able to picture where you want to take us. Keep the tech set-up simple so glitches don’t spoil your presentation.

7. Really focus on what you have to deliver (a five minute pitch) and what you will be judged on (validation, execution, business plan). Don’t get bogged down in extraneous detail.

8. Identify the strengths and skill sets of the mentors and pull them in when you need them for advice on specific aspects – leverage their contacts when you are seeking validation at short notice.

9. Do lots of pitch practice – amongst yourselves, in front of the mentors etc – get that pitch polished so the words roll off the tongue and you can focus on the presentation rather than remembering the content.

10. Get as much sleep as possible, drink lots of water and eat properly. Enjoy the experience!

Startup teams hard at work on Sunday afternoon.

Startup teams hard at work on Sunday afternoon.

The six teams of Startup Weekend Science & Research 2015

Message in a Bottle (WINNER)

Started out planning to make products from recycled plastics incorporating natural fibres like hemp. Was originally aiming at the high-end market for sustainable, funky looking products made with 3D printing. Quickly found out that there are plenty of players doing this well and that 3D printing wasn’t necessarily the answer.

Pivoted to become a agency working with big corporates and plastics users who want to sponsor sustainability programmes. Message in a Bottle works with these companies, councils and waste management companies to collect plastic bottles in public places, have in processed and use that raw plastic to create plastic products that are at the centre of sustainability projects for the companies involved eg: a plastic park bench for an inner city park or sets of sports equipment for schools. The value add is that Message in a Bottle take care of the whole process, managing all the relationships and producing the goods at its own fabricating facility.

Yes this team is relying on sponsorship money, but their market validation suggested there was strong appetite among companies to get involved and pay for it.

Paper Preen (RUNNER-UP)

A piece of software for stressed out academics writing research papers and wanting to check the formatting, grammar, sourcing and style of the journal they are seeking to submit it to. A number of apps on the market do this type of thing, but none does everything. With the validation exercise showing academics would be willing to pay $10 per paper to purchase everything Paper Preen was promising, it seemed there was strong appetite for a better way of doing things. The system reliesd on APIs that pull in dictionaries and database info from numerous sources so is more complex than it seems, but I think this team could pull it off and develop a decent little business in the process.

3MASS (HONOURABLE MENTION)

The Squeegee Robot that became surveying bot. These guys had the most technically complex idea of the weekend and as such, it was hard to get a handle on whether they would be able to pull off their concept – which involves robotics, sensor technology and software.

But New Zealand seems like a great test bed for such technology given our earthquake-prone building stock and push to upgrade buildings over the next decade. Lots of work to do here, but a high value industry to tap if they can pull it off.

Pet Share

Another one that pivoted – from offering a crowdfunding platform for people seeking money for expensive, cutting-edge medical procedures to one crowd funding for the same thing but for pets. The ethical and legal issues around offering this service for people proved too complex, leading the team to focus on animals. Many platforms already do this, but Pet Share’s aim to leverage existing social media platforms, possibly as a Facebook app, meant it could tap pre-existing networks. This team came the furthest during the weekend – a great bunch of guys who were positive and hilarious throughout.

Electric Share

A car sharing platform focused on electric cars. The idea is that Electric Share leases electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, then sub leases them to groups of people keen to share access to an electric car, paying an upfront fee and ongoing weekly payments for access. The big issue here was scheduling, which Electric Share planned to address with a nifty online scheduling tool and points system to ensure it was fair. But the overriding problem was that people would likely want to borrow the car at the same time – evenings and weekends, and without significant scale in the network, this would put off would-be investors. Still, car sharing schemes are common overseas, and City Hop existings in Auckland, so a scheme with electric cars isn’t out of the question.

Well U

A major pivoter, switching from developing a children’s game to encourage healthier living to one focused on PhD students and their wellbeing. They were trying to address the issue of high drop-out rates among PhDs, but doing a weekly survey of wellbeing, with reporting back to supervisors. But how effective would it be and who would pay? The execution and validation questions weren’t properly fleshed out, but there could well be an opportunity here with some further development.

Well done to Stefan, Nick and the team at CreativeHQ for another great Startup weekend. I hope we see another science and research one next year.

Sciblogs 2.0 coming soon – wanna get involved? Peter Griffin Jun 26

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After nearly six years in operation, Australasia’s largest blog network is getting a facelift and some fresh voices.

Sciblogs features commentary from around 30 scientists and science writers and is consistently ranked among the country’s top 10 blogs based on Sitemeter statistics.

But the platform is well overdue for a revamp and will soon be relaunched with a new look, new additions to the blogging line-up and a remit of appealing to a wider audience.

Among the changes will be:

  • A more visual look and refreshed blog homepages
  • Mobile-friendly design so Sciblogs looks good on smartphones and tablets
  • Some new bloggers covering everything from drones to psychology
  • News content drawing from sources such as our new Scimex.org research news portal.


Become a Scibling

We are on the lookout for new science bloggers to join our lively stable of bloggers and as well as writers, videographers and social media gurus who are passionate about science communication and who are keen to collaborate on Sciblogs.

“The likes of Iflscience, Science Alert and the science blog networks of Scientific American and Scienceblogs shows there’s strong appetite for science news and commentary,” said Sciblogs editor and Science Media Centre Director, Peter Griffin.

“We want to grow the Sciblogs community featuring the best, most interesting science from New Zealand and around the world. We’ll improve our mobile and social media presence so Sciblogs content is easier to browse and share.”

The new Sciblogs will go live by the end of August – contact if you would like to get involved.

Speed bumps on the road to Paris Peter Griffin Jun 24

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The next few months will witness a steady build-up to COP21, the December major climate change conference organised by the United Nations, and in the mind of many scientists, our last chance to strike a global agreement to tackle emissions reduction in a bid to stop dangerous global warming.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 4.17.21 pmThere hasn’t been as much anticipation ahead of a COP “conference of the parties”, since 2009, when politicians, policy officials, scientists and climate activists descended on Copenhagen to hammer out an international deal to curb emissions. That COP was widely considered to be a failure. The will wasn’t there. But will it be there six years on?

As we close in on the Paris meeting, scrutiny will also fall on the commitments individual nations make around emissions reduction targets beyond 2020.

The New Zealand Government recently held public consultation on our climate target, received over 10,000 submissions and attracting attendance of around 1,700 people at public meetings around the country.

So far, so constructive. But the climate target discussion paper and the nature of the consultation has attracted widespread criticism, most recently from the Association of Scientists just this week. Below I’ve summarised some of the feedback on the climate target from various parties:

Association of Scientists - critical of the short consultation period (less than four weeks) and the “minimal involvement” of key scientific institutions.

“The general lack of engagement by CRIs and Universities in the consultation process may reflect concerns previously raised by the Association about conflicts of interest in the scientific community, as a result of the Government’s policy of mainly funding scientific research that has a direct application in industry or government.”

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright – made an urgent call for the setting up of a national forum to tackle climate change. Said measures currently in place to tackle climate change are “insufficient”.

“The discussion document is disappointing – it is long on national circumstances, but short on ambition.”

Dr Wright’s submission on the climate target discussion document is available here.

Joint statement from Morgan Foundation, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, Generation Zero, Greenhouse Capital, Greenpeace and several individuals – consultation period was too short, emissions trading scheme hasn’t worked, we need cross-party agreement on tackling climate change.

“We can’t continue to puff up our existing achievements and investments while our emissions rise. There is only so long our international reputation could survive that sort of damage.”

Royal Society of New Zealand – a detailed science-based appraisal, recommending that New Zealand’s target should be around a 40% reduction in net emissions relative to 1990 gross emission levels, by 2030.

“This brief consultation period is not sufficient for the discussions we need to have as a country on how we want to respond to the biggest challenge of our time. Such conversations need to happen at multiple levels, on an ongoing basis, and across sectors.”

You can read the Royal Society submission here.

Victoria University academicsreported the New Zealand Herald, the academics say there is a “disconnect in it between the Government’s suggestions and questions, and CO2 emissions projections”.

“It nowhere demonstrates how it plans to achieve New Zealand’s existing CO2 emission reduction targets for 2020 to 2050.”

New Zealand Herald economics editor, Brian Fallow – consultation short on time and information.

“The short consultation timeframe and the limited information the Government has released suggest its attitude is one of shoulder-shrugging indifference: ‘Climate change? Is that still a thing?’”

Other analysis and criticism of the climate target discussion paper is outlined here.

A summary of submissions will be published by the Ministry for the Environment.

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

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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

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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.

YouTube Preview Image

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

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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

1,800 comments

26,000 Facebook shares

568 retweets

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.

beard

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.

bigfoot

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.

snog

‘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.

willies

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.

house

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.

robopenguin

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.

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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.

hurricanes

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.

poo

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.

inception

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