SciBlogs

Science and Society dream team? Elf Eldridge Oct 04

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With today’s announcement of the first 3 National Science Challenges (NSC’s) and the opening of their request for proposals*, I’m forced to reflect again on the Science and Society challenge. I’m assured that it’s moving forward behind the scenes (and I actually believe it is!) but I’m going to take this opportunity to prompt a little discussion with the science community about what we might like it to look like and, specifically, who might be some excellent thought and practice leaders to ensure it actually achieves what the Panel intended rather than to simply meet the milestones that will be set out for it (as so many projects end up doing – both public and private).

Who would you pick to keep the science and society challenge on course? – Image from Wikimedia Commons

First off: what aspects of Science and Society is the challenge likely to focus on? We can’t know before an official announcement is made, but we can possibly extrapolate from the latest documentation coming out of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment. The draft Tertiary Education strategy that’s making the twitter rounds at the moment (document here) is probably a reasonable place to start. I can only provide an overview as I haven’t had a chance to review the entire document yet but it outlines some ‘priorities’ for NZ tertiary education:

  1. Delivering Skills for Industry
  2. Getting at-risk young people into a career
  3. Boosting Achievement of Maori and Pacifika
  4. Improving adult literacy and numeracy
  5. Strengthening research-based institutions
  6. Growing International Linkages

Reading between the lines a little we can imagine that an emphasis for the Science and Society challenge might to promote general science and mathematics literacy (items 2, 3 and 4) and teaching STEM skills relevant to modern careers (items 1,2, 3, 5 and 6).

Would this be a reasonable focus for the challenge – given that it’s impossible for the challenge to try and tackle every science and society at once? For my two cents it seems a reasonable goal – and one that my on personal motivations are closely aligned to – however I’m about as biased as one could get! So I would love to hear others’ take on it.

Secondly comes the big question who might we grab on to lead these sorts of developments?

For general science and mathematics literacy, one could cherry pick any number of organisations to lead the charge – however public literacy is something that is intensely personal, so I wonder if a person rather than a faceless organisation might be best to lead this? If you accept this then who might you choose for such a role? It would require experience, ability, motivation and a certain amount of delicacy. If I’m honest – I think the best person in NZ for the role would be Siouxie Wiles. Quite apart from being a gifted scientist and communicator Siouxie is also knowledgeable about almost every branch of public science communication known to mankind. I think if there were a way to communicate the intricacies of bioluminescence with smoke signals, then Siouxie would have found a way to do it. If you needed to raise money for such an activity Siouxie would have some good ideas on places to start.

This has nothing to do with the article, its just a pretty picture of bioluminescent Gusano luciernaga – Image from Wikimedia Commons

So that just leaves modern STEM education**. Again I’m an advocate of a person or small group of people to lead this rather than an organisation, but this is a tough ask! It will require co-ordination between not only secondary schools and tertiary institutions, but also the ability to synergise between significantly different styles of learning that are developing thanks to technology (i.e. MOOCs, Kahn Academy with more traditional approaches like lectures). The group will have to have fluid goals AND long term visions to keep pace with the requirements of ever-changing industry, and the frontiers of modern science.

So who would I pick? Actually – no one. I don’t know of anyone in NZ that can exemplify all these qualities***. What I would suggest is to take a look how international organisations attract, retain and train their staff. NASA and Google would be my picks simply because they currently rank as the top 2 places in the world engineers want to work[1], they both have large workforces that are consistently at the forefront of modern research, and they employ STEM skilled people from a huge variety of areas and effectively interface them with modern international industry and they support science and technology outreach initiatives at school level. Most importantly though, they attract and inspire the best and brightest from across the planet to compete at the same level as them. Surely we could do worse than emulate that?

Yeah I think emulating that put this little guy on Mars with a rocket crane is the right approach here. Click image for the full video.  Image and Video credit to NASA

This only looks at half the problem though – attracting, encouraging and educating the best and brightest. New Zealand has a unique additional element that I’m not convinced anyone has figured out how to solve – that of our large ‘tail’ of students that are not achieving which is often split along socioeconomic or ethnic lines[2]. And it’s really hard to see how this will change with schools funded on student success, so rather than taking STEM subjects students are ushered towards others if they’re not seen to be able to achieve to make the teacher and the school look better. NZ could respond by altering rules and assessment standards, but unless there is a clear**** correlation between STEM  education and a reduction in social inequalities as Sir Paul Callaghan believed, people are unlikely to change their behaviour.

Who would I pick to tackle this part? Not a clue I’m afraid. But that’s why I’m discussing it here, in the hopes that people will nominate some successes in this area that I might not yet be aware of.

This is all simply opinion and conjecture of course. But I have to believe that perhaps if we discuss this some detail, then it just might get read by someone who is in a position to actually decide in what direction the Science and Society Challenge is headed.

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*Go competitive funding models because of pre-existing laws rather than because they work well to get people to collaborate! <- Yes this is sarcasm.

**Yes there are similarities between science communication and STEM education but they are very different beasties. It’s relatively easy to get a group of people excited and interested about science (what I do). It’s far harder to get the information you impart to stick in their heads and alter the way they see and interact with the world long term (teachers get massive kudos from me for actually doing this as a job).

*** Yes of course there are several hundred organisations/people working on this nationally. Sorry to burst your bubble everyone but I don’t think that any one of us have got it entirely right yet. But there are some promising exemplars that I mention here.

****Here I mean clearly communicated to parents, students and teachers.

[1] Forbes article here

[2] The Te Ropu Awhina article on this and what Awhina has attempted to do about it is available here.

 

 

Evaluating Science Outreach? Elf Eldridge Sep 24

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Given the audience of Sciblogs.co.nz, I doubt I’ll be going out on a limb by saying that science communication and outreach is important. The issue I’ve been grappling with recently is how effective, and important the outreach we actually do is.

Let me set the scene. In Wellington* we have a huge number (circa 70) of different organisations that are in some way (or have been) involved in science outreach and communication programmes. They cross the spectrum from non-profits to CRIs and Universities and community groups, and the list is still growing – please get in touch if you know of any omissions! Most of these operate independently from one another, most struggle daily for funding and people to continue their work, and all approach the issue of science outreach and communication in their own personal ways.

So, put yourself in the shoes of a potential sponsor for a moment (or a volunteer with time wanting to help out). With limited money, people and time, try and decide which one(s) should you support. Part of it will come down, of course, to personal interest, for example if you’re a Porirua-based company you might be more interested in supporting Porirua focussed programmes. Yet once you have whittled down the list by preference, often there are still tens of programmes to choose from. If your goal (like mine) is to promote general science literacy across the board – then most of them seem like great causes worthy of your support.

How would you weigh your choice? – Image via Wikimedia Commons

But what if you dig a little deeper? How could you compare the ‘efficacy’ of something like a Royal Society sponsored lecture that attracts 200 people to a bi-weekly meeting of parents and kids akin to what is currently happening at The Clinic at Ngaio school (check it out here – it looks awesome!)?

Here’s my list of factors so far (again it’s incomplete and suggestions are encouraged):

  • How many times has it occurred over the last 3 months? (n)
  • How many people does it attract (on average) per session? (p)
  • How much does it cost to run – to both the participants and organisers? (C)
  • How long does each session take? (h)
  • What is involved in each session? (is it simply a talk? Or is there creativity involved? Or hands-on demonstrations?) (Q)
  • What audience is it reaching? (d)

Taking these variables (and any others you feel are relevant) how would you choose to combine them to give some ‘measure’ of a particular activity. My first instinct is to combine them as  = (nphQ)/(Cd) **.

Personally, I would take d as the average decile value of the 5 schools closest to the location of the event (as a point to start from – this is hardly a robust metric!), Q as 1 for a talk, 2 for a hands on demo, 3 for an actual experiment and 4 for the creation and design of something. Finally I would estimate on a scale from 1-10 with 1 being a free event to arrange and 10 being something that requires attendance fees or large degrees of sponsorship to occur.  Interestingly this particular formulation scores community efforts that encourage face-time and hands on experimentation higher than more traditional outreach methods such as lectures (which is hardly surprising as that’s the way I constructed it to act!).

So would you agree? Or is this approach simply too coarse grained to have any meaningful comparative value? If so, how then would you choose what to support?

UPDATE: NZCER (NZ Council for Educational Research) has also collated  a bunch of their science education research here for anyone that’s interested in NZ specific publications. They can be a bit lengthy, but many of them contain some valuable insight into how, when and where we might be best placed in applying our science outreach/education efforts for the maximum social effect.

* the majority of my work has a strong Wellington focus simply because of the amount of time I have available to dedicate to outreach. I dearly hope that getting detailed information about one location might generate some insight about how to proceed in other areas of the country at some stage in the future.

** Yes I apologise for committing the cardinal sin of putting a formula in a blog post. It’s also laughably simplistic to expect an accurate comparison from such a simple exercise and there are plenty of ways it could be expanded. For instance the Q and h terms are linked and should suffer from diminishing returns. There’s also the issue of personal weighting of particular variables (my big issues are obviously demographic (d) and quality (Q)), but it may still be an interesting way to start considering this problem.

Putting science in the ‘too hard’ basket Elf Eldridge Sep 23

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A friend put me onto this article that appeared on Stuff this morning. It deals with a warning that the Ministry of education has received from Secondary Principals’ Association about being force to drop Year 11 science as a compulsory subject as students are struggling to achieve NCEA Level 1 by including it.

I particularly enjoy the opening line “Scientists are alarmed…“, personally I find that a little bit of an understatement! Whilst I understand that school funding is linked to students success rates – the idea that you simply drop something as integral as science because students struggle to pass utterly confounds me.

Lets imagine if a similar situation arose with English, where students were struggling to pass. Would we then drop English from the curriculum? One would certainly hope not, as some knowledge of english is central to the participation of a future citizen in New Zealand society. After all – isn’t this why we choose to teach these subjects? So why are we treating science any different? Are we implicitly saying that a basic understanding of how reality actually works, how humans grow and develop, and how to critically evaluate information are not useful tools in modern society?

Now there is every chance that this is simply a storm in a teacup because there may just be an issue with the achievement standards that need to be improved (but as neither an educational professional or curriculum expert I’m not able to comment on this), but if it isn’t then I have to agree with Sir Peter Gluckman’s stance:

“It just seems to me that they are not doing the right thing by young people. To exclude them so early from studying science, you’re affecting their future”

So for any principals, teachers, parents or students out there reading this – please don’t let this happen at your school. If it has already happened – complain. If it’s about to happen – protest. If you want to learn how to improve science teaching join a group like the Capital City science Educators who can support you. Get a speaker to enthuse and excite your students via FutureinTech. If none of these work get in touch with me directly and I’ll do my best to help you find the people and resources you need to sort this. But please PLEASE don’t let you college/school give up on science as a Year 11 subject – your children or students have too much to lose!

UPDATE: There is also an Op Ed piece from the Dominion Post about this here.

 

Ethical Skepticism Elf Eldridge Sep 05

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This weekend myself and my fellow scibloggers Siouxie Wiles and aimee whitcroft are privileged enough to be talking at the New Zealand skeptics conference alongside the likes of Pamela Gay and Kylie Sturgess. Needless to say I’m more than a little excited (especially as I get to show off the capabilities of the Carter observatory planetarium the following week with Dr. Gay)!

During the panel discussion we will be broaching some rather difficult topics (I hope). So I wrote this post to give sciblogs readers the opportunity to comment on some of my ethical musings and hopefully have their thoughts feed into our discussion.*

I grew up in a household with a very open mentality. All religions, philosophies, myths and legends were fair game for debate, discussion and belief or disbelief. If my whanau had a catchcry it would be “If a belief doesn’t harm anybody, then where is the harm in people believing it?”. It’s a remarkably pervasive philosophy that I believe many can relate too, yet simultaneously naïve, and I wonder if that’s because it conveniently side-steps many of the complicated ethical questions associated with belief. The simplest is obvious: “What happens when a person’s belief DOES harm another?” And once you start down that path there’s no stopping the flood of followup questions: Is it O.K. to allow an animal to be harmed for the continuation of a person’s belief? What about a child? And what precisely constitutes harm? As a society we have answered some of these questions (at least legally if not morally) but certainly not all and, of course, we’re encountering new ones everyday.

This is where I see modern skepticism – not simply being skeptical for the sake of being skeptical, but continuously re-evaluating the social and ethical implications of the research and technologies we develop in light of new information. One of the many issues though is that humans continuously find new ways to ask old questions as well – and keeping up with both is a daunting task. More than this however is the human brain’s propensity towards preferentially storing surprising or interesting information, regardless of its truth.

Unstated behind much of the outreach that scientists do today is the assumption that people make better decisions when they are given better information. I contend that this is simply untrue. If what people retain is intimately linked with how they feel about a certain piece of information – then providing information will never be enough to counteract the action of vocal minorities who, by their very definition, will espouse information a listener will find contrary a the majority view – and so find surprising or novel and will thus be more likely to retain that information rather than a boring old (true!) fact.

So if you want to prevent this – the course of action is clear: you make YOUR information as interesting and novel, or you attempt to instill your listeners with skepticism about all information. (Or you could eliminate the vocal minority but a) it wouldn’t work because there’s always a minority and b) eliminating a contrary viewpoint simply because it’s contrary is HIGHLY unethical – at least in my book!). However, by doing this you’re also making a judgement call and deliberately trying to manipulate your audience into sharing your point of view. Of course this isn’t new, it happens daily in politics, the media and the comments section on skeptics and non-skeptics web pages – so one could counter argue “If everyone else is doing it what’s the harm in me doing it too?”

So the crux of this blog post and something I hope to raise at the skeptics conference is this: The human brain and the person that inhabits it are innately curious and inventive creatures. We ask questions, we question answers we imagine how things could be better or worse than the world we inhabit. Yet our brains are uniquely inept at certain problems. Look at our innate sense of probability, or optical illusions, or our ability to create and retrieve memories. These are all inherently flawed processes – which is why we need the scientific method to help us ascertain when our intuition is wrong. The problem is that when this becomes a majority viewpoint** – there exists a stable population who will oppose it simply because it IS a majority viewpoint. And no amount of education or information can ever make this stop. Yet we have EVERY incentive, morally and ethically to minimise the impact of non-skeptical viewpoints on our society because – if for no other reason – it saves lives (look at the effect of the anti-vaccine promoters and the increased incidence of measles for one current example).

So when is enough skepticism enough? What beliefs must we counter more strongly than others if we wish to minimise suffering and save lives? And is there a way to do this that doesn’t come across as simply a majority attempting to stamp out the beliefs of a contrary vocal minority?

I would be hope we might be up for an interesting panel discussion!

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* This blog post is an OPINION PIECE that is intended to promote discussion. I have attempted to include references where I can (mostly to interesting Wikipedia articles I’ve read recently) so any statements I present or imply as fact should be treated with … you guessed it … extreme skepticism at best. Any corrections/references/criticisms relevant to statements I have made in this blog would be welcomed in the comments below.

** Personally I don’t think skepticism/scientific literacy IS a majority viewpoint in NZ yet – which is why I’m involved with so much science communication. But then again there’s a pretty strong selection bias there isn’t there!

Hope and the Science and Society Challenge Elf Eldridge Aug 20

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Is anyone else slightly concerned about the absence of commentary on the Science and Society National Science Challenge?

For those who either missed it (or forgot about it in the intervening months since its announcement at the end of April this year) the “Science and Society” challenge was touted as a leadership challenge for the government to:

“…take take a lead in improving the science capacities and the public’s understanding of science…” – quote from here

The peak panel recommended several (non-exclusive) areas that needed targeting:

  • Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education in primary and secondary schools
  • Public understanding of science, technology assessment and risk forecasting
  • Early discussion amongst society on new technologies to develop the social licence and agree boundaries.

I must admit as a panel member this was by far the most exciting challenge. In my last blog is even went so far as to say:

“So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge, and it will be our fault if “Science in Society” ends up becoming just political hot air.”

Well, as some more astute readers have noticed – it is now August; and to the best of my knowledge approximately NOTHING has happened on this challenge since May.* In that time, the other challenges have all held several meetings and workshops  with leaders from their respective fields. Some even appear to be making progress**!  I could hypothesis why this is the case until I’m blue in the face but there are some glaring reasons why scientists might have more pressing concerns than this, as a physics researcher pointed out to me on twitter last week.

sci_map

It could simply be that this challenge requires dialogue with a huge number of diverse groups – the image above attempts to name and connect the organisations involved in public science outreach across New Zealand (kindly provided to me by MBIE). I’ll freely admit that this is a complex and often high-opinionated landscape – but it’s also one that’s united by a common cause. Surely expecting a simple statement of intent or movement over almost 4 months isn’t too much to ask? Not when individuals are willing to volunteer their time to make this move forward? Which is – in part why I’ve been feeling so uncharacteristically pessimistic about the future of science in New Zealand recently.

JPEG image

But once again – it’s New Zealand fantastic teachers, scientists and students that have bought me out of my gloom. Firstly a massive congratulations to the New Zealand team in the international young physicists tournament who were awarded a silver medal for their 6th placing in the 2013 held in Taipei. If you need confidence in New Zealand’s ability to produce top quality scientists and engineer you need look no further than this team – and of course the support they received from their teachers, a certain blogger, and scientists at Callaghan Innovation even whilst in the midst of an pretty extensive restructure.

Then there are the phenomenal candidates who participated in this year’s Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan science symposium. The eventual winner – Evan Brenton-Rule spoke about managing New Zealand’s invasive species – but all the participants are well worth watching. On there’s the fact that currently there’s a space telescope mounted in a freakin’ PLANE operating out of Christchurch. And the NZ skeptics conference and Carter Observatory get to host astronomer and podcaster Pamela Gay at their 2013 conference on September 6th-8th in Wellington.

With all this going on (and of course much MUCH more) – it difficult to stay pessimistic about the relationship between science and society in New Zealand. Of course we can do much better - and we should certainly strive to – but perhaps a simple way for us to start is to acknowledge the science culture we have bubbling out of the woodwork already across Aotearoa?

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* Yes there’s a large element of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ in this post since even I haven’t posted about it since May! And part of the blame sites squarely with myself for letting this lapse.

** Apologies for being bland and non-specific here. I can’t comment further on this until an official announcement is made. Rest assured I will as soon as one IS made.

National Science Challenges – an insider perspective Elf Eldridge May 02

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With the announcement yesterday of the national science challenges, it’s a blessing that I can now openly talk about being (partially) involved in the process. I’ve watched the process (and the large amount of cynicism that accompanied it almost every step of the way!) evolve and the response from researchers is, in a word – predictable. The Science Media Centre has some excellent comment from experts in the field here if you want a broad overview of New Zealand scientist’s responses.  Yet from some of the comments I do get the distinct impression that some hadn’t read anything about what the national science challenges were attempting to achieve.

It’s worth stressing, particularly for the issue of climate change and many of the others, that to be selected for inclusion scientific research HAD to be at the core of the Challenge.  Speaking personally, it was horrible to not explicitly include such a global issue as climate change, however responding to our changing climate is simply not primarily a scientific issue. Furthermore the base science behind it is well known, and has been well known for some years now. Part of the panel’s report (which can be read in full here) stresses that exclusion from a challenge does not imply that issues are not of paramount importance.

The two ‘expert’ comments I found most valuable, and interestingly two of the most negative, were from Professors Kate McGrath:

“The National Government released today the ten Challenges to revolutionize, revitalise and redress those areas that will have the most immediate impacts on societal and economic points of tension in New Zealand. Those crucial areas that right now limit our knowledge and our future potential. That essentially cost us the most; the most in immediate financial drains and ongoing future drains and boundaries to slow down or stop our growth. Why then do they feel like the same lists we have seen for years?

“The same focus and the same limited viewpoints? The same thinking that will produce the same results, where is the World After Midnight perspective? Where are the game changers? We pride ourselves on being the ingenious country, ingenuity in a closed small box won’t deliver a full and expansive tomorrow, let alone for future generations.” – Professor Kathryn McGrath

and Shaun Hendy and both from Victoria University and the MacDiarmid Institute:

“I am disappointed that the process has failed to throw up anything that is really new or innovative. The challenges chosen will look like business as usual to many, albeit with a stronger focus on health sciences that perhaps reflects the Peak Panel’s own interest in this sector. Of the 10 science challenges selected, only one really addresses one of the key economic challenges our country faces: namely the over-dependence of our economy on the primary sector.”  – Professor Shaun Hendy

I have to concede they make some excellent points – especially pointing out the fact that most of the challenges aren’t particularly ‘innovative’. On this I have to agree. I personally would have given anything to see a challenge how NZ could become a country entirely independent of fossil fuels in 15 years. Or to genetically modify seaweed as a biofuel source. Or to develop New Zealand’s technologies in the space industry.

At the core of the challenges however, were the public submissions and these sent clear messages. Whilst scientists like myself might drool over cutting edge research, when asking a human being about what they want from their scientists, their responses can hardly be seen as surprising. They want their mum’s and dad’s to live healthily for as long as possible. They want their kids to grow up healthy and with the best possible start in life. They want to preserve New Zealand’s environment and species.

To pick anything that didn’t reflect these desires would be tantamount to ignoring what people said they wanted. Can we blame the NSC process or the NZ public for the lack of ‘innovation’ in the challenges? I certainly don’t think so.  There is certainly a need for cutting edge science to push us forward – but expecting people to choose this over preserving the country and people they love is an exercise in naivete.

And this is precisely why I’m so excited about the “Science in Society” leadership challenge. Acknowledging that science has a core place in New Zealand’s future is a great first step – but it is my hope that it will also allow scope to develop New Zealand as a nation that embraces science. We cannot expect to attract and retain world-class researchers and students to NZ unless we’re actively involved in innovative, cutting edge science. Yet we have seen people* will not select these as topics of national importance if given the choice. This challenge will allow us space to explore this relationship, as well as to improve the quality of our science education.  And as a graduate going out into the world, getting to pick which country I work in – a country that explicitly states the importance of science in its society is a much more attractive proposition than many others.

So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge, and it will be our fault if “Science in Society” ends up becoming just political hot air.

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* when I say ‘people’  here, I actually mean the subset that participated in the National Science Challenges submission process. Which is different to the NZ public in general.

Predator-Free NZ: Our ‘Space Programme’? Elf Eldridge Mar 22

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Last night I attended the “Pesty Science” lecture hosted by Victoria University looking at the issues surrounding the idea of a Predator-Free New Zealand. The lecture was presented by Landcare Research’s Dr Andrea Byrom, and really dug into the nitty-gritty questions we have to ask if we (as a nation) seriously want to consider a predator-free NZ as a potential future. To her credit, Dr. Byrom began (in typical scientific fashion) by stating that although she has a personal interest in the problem she was NOT advocating a stance either for or against “Predator-Free NZ”. She discussed the need for people to appreciate the difference between ‘pest-contol’ and ‘pest-eradication’ – and noted New Zealand’s decent track record when it comes to pest eradication on small islands.

Brushtail Possum – Image by Bryce McQuillan via Wikimedia Commons

I found the most interesting parts of her talk however, was around the trade-offs we will have to make if we expect to make this idea a reality. Specifically she mentioned the use of aircraft bait dropping, deciding WHICH species warrant inclusion in the eradication scheme (usually the discussion centres on possums, rats and mice, stoats and their ilk and feral cats – despite what is being bandied around in the media currently) and the need for survey systems to detect ‘downstream effects’. For clarification this means looking at the concentration of baits in the bodies of other non-target specifies to appreciate the flow on effect through the food chain. She finished by mentioning the large social barriers that would have to be overcome, to say nothing of the large financial cost involved*.

Here I will admit that conservation biology is NOT my field, so I can’t comment on the validity of the science behind such an idea. Scibloggers far better equipped to discuss the intricacies than I have been discussing this for some time now. However there are a few inescapable facts we should acknowledge, the first being cost. Estimates of the cost vary widely but for a country with a GDP of US$166.9 Billion it’s likely minimum is 1.7-1.8% of GDP*. That’s significantly more than NZ’s total 2010 R&D spending (both government and private) which was quoted at 1.3% of 2010 GDP. Can we as a country justify spending this much on any one project? And lets not forget that this money can’t just ‘appear’ – it will have to removed from other projects. Can we say with certainty that this money isn’t better spent on roads, or education,  or medical treatment or even simply reducing the amount of NZ children that still live below the poverty line?

Image by Andrew Turner via Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, sure this garners a huge amount of public support now – when it’s simply an idea, but what happens when this begins to conflict with our ability to access our environment? Anyone that has been to any of our island reserves will have experiences the extensive searching you have to go through. What happens when this comes to the mainland? It will mean decades of checkpoints and searches throughout the country, possibly even large tracks of NZ being off-limits. How will the public and government feel then?

And finally, to me it is still not clear that even after all this effort that it is possible at all. A project like this must necessarily survive changes in government and the global environment – and that’s certainly not trivial. Furthermore, even if we do eliminate the list of species above, what effect will this have on our indigenous species? From research done by sanctuaries such as Zealandia, we might expect indigenous fauna populations to bounce back – but intrinsically this will be at different rates. What happens when weka (for example) assume parts of the ecological niche left vacant by the absence of these predators? Do we then wipe them out too? And even if this is successful beyond our wildest dreams, it won’t bring back the Huia or the Moa – New Zealand can never return to pre-settlement conditions.

Apollo 11 breaks the sound barrier after launch on 16 July 1969 on it’s way to mankind’s historic moon landing – image from NASA via Wikimedia Commons

So does this mean we should bin the idea? Absolutely and unequivocally: NO.

Committing to a decades long programme of research will force us to confront and understand what it is that we, as Kiwi’s, value and what makes our nation ‘home’. It will serve as a reminder that we are a preparing for a future better than what we enjoy today. It will require innovations in science, technologies, public consultancy and co-ordination that will spill into other areas including business, tourism and medicine.  It will generate knowledge that is valuable, not only to ourselves, but to every nation on earth. And all of this will happen REGARDLESS of whether it succeeds or not. If this rhetoric sounds familiar – it should:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”- John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

And so I close by posing the question, not “Is Predator-Free NZ our version of a Space Programme?”, but:

Is predator-free NZ the BEST big challenge New Zealand can aspire to?”

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*the exact cost is not known so I will not repeat Dr. Byron’s estimate here – however it looks to be on the order of billions of dollars.

The Case of the Vanishing Elf Elf Eldridge Feb 05

4 Comments

It really has been far too long since my last post, but thanks to some prodding from the local Sciblogs community (God bless them!) I’ll try and summarise why Just So Science has been so quiet since last year. And I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been putting my nose to the grindstone and focussing on my PhD work – but it’s really not!

In it’s simplest form, I guess you could say I’ve been testing a hypothesis of mine that emerged from the Transit of Venus forum in the middle of last year. For anyone not at the forum, one of the take home messages from Sir Peter Gluckman (echoing the words of Sir Paul Callaghan) was that

If we want to see a change in the science environment it’s up to individuals to take action, and that one of the good things about New Zealand is that it’s one of the few places where individuals can have a significant impact on national attitudes towards science” (yes I’m paraphrasing a little)

My hypothesis is that this is wrong.*

However, as with all hypothesis, there’s no consensus without any data – so I set up generating some. Firstly, after reading the Geek Manifesto (also recommended by Sir Peter Gluckman at the ToV forum), I set the bounds for my experiment (the Wellington region) and the metrics I was going to test: public science education and evaluation, engaging with politicians, talking to industry and working with local science groups. My equivalent of a literature review was to locate and meet the existing science groups in Wellington, from well known groups like Wellington nerd nite to newcomers such as the Wellington Makerspace and the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society. (By the way there are HEAPS and you can view my current list, which is still incomplete, here)

I won’t go into detail now, but here’s the latest progress in each:

Engaging science/tech industry

This has been by far the easiest nut to crack. Working with Chiasma WGTN we brought together over 200 graduates and representatives from Wellington technology industry together at Synapse in August of 2012 and will expand on that this year. We helped place a handful of students, and have arranged site visits to GNS, Kiwistar optics, Glycosyn with several more planned for this year. We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support and encouragement from Wellington’s science companies – their openness and willingness to talk to us even in harsh economic times is amazing!

Public science education

Partnering with a Wellington education startup, Chalkle, we worked together to create and run a series of science workshops for the public. So far we have run Spacecamp, Astronomy, Introductory Biology, Astrophysics and more with Intro Electronics, Critical thinking and the Maths of Gambling and Risk coming up soon. Attendance is a solid 20 people per class (although we had over 100 for Spacecamp!) and we’re committed to keep the costs as low as possible ($5-$10 per person) to ensure this system is sustainable. We’re also developing resources for child-focussed outreach with Chalkle Whanau, building water rockets and running a kid’s spacecamp. I estimate that we’ve taught a class to at least a quarter of Chalkle’s 1000+ members so far – with more indicating interest every day. We’re also working with the Wellington Makerspace to allow us to more effectively work in low decile areas. Just performing these is not enough however – we must show efficacy, but that’s easier said than done. We are developing an evaluation toolkit to allow us to asses how well we’re doing – but it’s still a while away from completion.

Local science groups

Wellington is graced with both Science Express at Te Papa and Cafe Scientifique in Lower Hutt (back at Wholly Bagels for 2013!) on the first and last Thursday of every month (respectively) from February to November. They typically attract around 80 locals each per talk. These overseen by the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society and organisation which was in need of a little ‘shaking up’. As of late 2012 I assumed presidency of the Branch and have assembled a team of Wellington science ‘do-ers’ to act as a ‘Skunkworks‘ to develop and test new ideas for the region. Their job is not only to promote science and technology, but to also ‘inspire’ the public with spectacular examples of ‘citizen science’.

Engaging with politicians

I haven’t had much success with this particular channel – however there are signs this may be changing. It may be an artefact of the current political science environment, or the possibility that I’m just doing it wrong!

So where does my hypothesis sit now? In my mind it’s still very much up in the air. In New Zealand it’s remarkably easy to start something new with a hiss and a bang – the real challenges lies in making it stick and that is by no means certain. Looking at the numbers above, we’re still a long way off reaching even 1% of the population of Greater Wellington region. There’s still much much more I would like to try – specifically addressing Maori and Pacific engagement in science and technology – but I’m determined to get some concrete evidence behind us first, else we run the risk of wasting people’s time unless we can prove our efficacy.

Well done if you’ve got this far through the post! It’s long and rather narcissistic (apologies!) and likely an exercise in naivete – but that’s no reason not to try it – as always, comments, ideas and criticisms welcome!

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*Yes I fully appreciate that contradicting Sir Paul and Sir Peter is not the wisest of moves, however I trust that as scientists they would appreciate the need for this hypothesis as motivation to gather evidence.

Cross-section of Wellington’s High-Tech Businesses Elf Eldridge Sep 05

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In keeping with our aim to connect students with industry, on the 4th August, Chiasma Wellington held our “Introduction to Wellington Industry” at Victoria University. Wait! Before you leave this page thinking this is another shameless self-promotion post that I seem to spew out with unerring regularity, there is a real reason behind me mentioning the content of this. (OK and yes there is a little self-promotion inherent in the post as well!)

We tried something a little different, having suffered through numerous long boring industry presentations in the past, we gave each speaker a mere 15 minutes to not only explain who they were and what their respective company/organization did, but also to give a high level overview of their entire industry in Wellington. We hoped that being active in their fields would give our presenters a reasonable idea of who their competitors and collaborators were and so really to point out to students the movers and shakers in their industries of interest. The jury is still out on whether we succeeded or not (although feedback from both company and student attendees has been almost uniformly positive – apart from a few irate student having to get to uni by 9am on a Saturday!), but we certainly connected the dots for the students that attended.

The most useful slide of the day however (decided by the number of times it was mentioned by attendees!) was presented by Karen Bender and Adrian Gregory from GrowWGTN. It gave a rather sumptuous chart of Wellington’s active companies, what they do and their areas of expertise, and they have been kind enough to allow me to share it with you. Remember – this is a snapshot for Wellington as of August 2012 and was specifically created to be relevant to science and engineering graduates – so it is not comprehensive, but still immensely useful.

GrowWGTN’s cross-section of Wellington’s high-tech companies grouped by science and business areas – August 2012 (click for a larger version)

So see companies you know? Great! See companies you don’t? Find out about them! They’re all carving out their own little high-tech niche in Wellington and deserve all the support we can give them. These are some of the companies that Sir Paul Callaghan believed we had to culture in order to become a prosperous, attractive nation. If you’re from those companies reading this – you have my thanks for playing a part in making his dreams (and mine!) a reality. And also for giving us science grads a possible future career path here in Wellington!

Eureka! Symposium synopsis Elf Eldridge Jul 20

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Last Thursday I had the honour of attending the first annual Eureka! young science orator’s awards, an event born out of a collaboration between the late great Sir Paul Callaghan and Rotary. The premise is deceptively simple, get 12 young erudite people, passionate about some aspect of science, bring them to Wellington and get them to speak directly to some of the movers and shakers of science in New Zealand – and so the Eureka! awards came to fruition. Throughout the course of the day we heard challenges criticism, but most interestingly, hope about New Zealand’s future as a nation that not only appreciates, but entirely embraces science and its methodology.

I could condemn the typical lack-lustre political addresses that bookended the day (although I admit I was presently surprised with parts of Steven Joyce’s closing) , but instead I wish to focus on the contestant’s themselves. I have paraphrased some of their messages below – do take the time to watch their entire presentations (here) if you’re curious about even a little part of what they speak about!

Lisa Craw opened the day, with a simply gorgeous combination of seriousness and comedy explaining how crucial good science communication is to New Zealand’s future and calling for novel science funding models such as RocketHub. Eugene Young, imagined a future where meat was clean , green and lab grown asking us to not fall back into the human trap of “fearing what we do not understand.” Oliver ter Ellen looked into the details of some of the solar cell research being done at Victoria University, whilst noting the success of feed-in tariffs to encourage adoption of new technologies like these in overseas countries. William Guzzo asked us to “show courage” and position New Zealand as a world leader in GE research, leading by example of experimentally evaluating safety concerns rather than cowering behind archaic prejudices. Yanni Cowie prompted serious consideration of integrating second generation biofuels into New Zealand’s transport system. Emma Livingstone gave us a glimpse into her wonderful world of drug design, and discussed the difficulties of procuring a funding model for science steeped in serendipity. Scott Thomas transported us to the edge of the universe on the back of his observations using NASA’s Fermi satellite and discussed two ‘space age’ companies thriving right here in NZ: Rocketlab and Kiwistar Optics. Ben Guerin explained his vision for converting a large part of Aotearoa’s power grid to using distributed power systems that utilize a combination of wind, hydro, solar and novel storage technologies to allow communities to sell their generated power back to the national grid. Sylvia English cleared the air around reversible male contraception as a possible method to reduce some of New Zealand’s 16,000 abortions per year. Thomas Moore dispelled some common misconceptions about fracking, asking the hard questions about the public’s reaction to it. Toby Hendy rallied against New Zealand’s IQ gap between social groups and suggested a plethora of ways to address this and other issues. The final speaker, Hadleigh Frost, wowed the audience with his insight into the intersection of  psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

Keep and eye out on sciblogs ‘guest work’ for short summaries of these talks.

I’ll just end on a personal note, that these young people are exactly the sort of visionaries we need to keep propelling New Zealand’s science forward. They may be young, in some cases they may be naive. We may criticise them for their ‘wide-eyed optimisim’, but we cannot fault any of these students on their passion for their chosen topics – and I believe for that reason alone, for their ability to inspire, and to encourage even the most jaded of us to reconsider what is possible here in Aotearoa, that their messages warrant listening to.

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