Random points of interest from NZBio

By Peter Kerr 24/03/2011 7

Back from NZBio’s annual conference, with a tonne of notes and not sure how to make them all make sense.

However, some random points of interest – unthemed.

• When talking with the media, scientists need to overcome their embarrassment at constantly repeating a message. Scientists should still stick to the facts, let the journalist form an opinion. Stephen Goldson, strategy advisor to the office of the Prime Minister’s Science and Advisory Committee

• Living Cell Technologies encapsulation semi-permeable membrane is one of its main pieces of intellectual property – allows the transplanted pig insulin producing cells in a human body not to be rejected by the body’s immune system. Prof Bob Elliot

• Thermophilic bacteria from geothermal hot pools are an attractive potential vehicle in the bioenergy and biochemical industries. One major reason is that because they exist in silica rich environments, they immediately ‘grab’ any carbon (i.e. tree that falls into hot pool) that comes their way. Isolating and identifying potential candidates for commercial application is one of Scion’s many goals

• Scion’s TOGA (titremetric and off-gas analysis) machine, which allows realtime adjustment of anaerobic environments/fermentation, has attracted considerable purchasing interest from other parties.

• A sense of simplicity is a growing food trend. A general opposition to genetically modified foods may also push into possible nano foods and other new types of food products. The educated, globally aware and health conscious food buyers (where higher value food products are aimed) may in fact reject novel foods. Dr Karin Cronin, ESR, ‘sustainable decision-making for future food technologies’.

• The linear, conveyor-belt push of new food products needs to be balanced with an understanding of society and citizens into the markets – before too much product development is carried out. Karin Cronin again

• Why is working with big pharma so difficult/challenging….some numbers. In 2010, Merck received 7000 opportunities to review. 1000 of these were taken through to committee, 400 of which went to confidentiality agreements. Merck signed 46 significant deals/licences. Dr David Nicholson, Merck Inc (USA).

• Bomac Animal Health (recently purchased by Bayer), actively gathers information and industry ‘gossip’, collects competitors’ IP activity information, obtains ongoing feedback from researchers, distributors and vets. “Does its research, knows its markets, positions its IP around the market not the product.” Kate Wilson, James & Wells.

7 Responses to “Random points of interest from NZBio”

  • “Scientists should still stick to the facts, let the journalist form an opinion” – Isn’t this the problem? Journalists form opinions that are based on their lack of understanding the science, which inevitably go horribly wrong? For instance when Craig Venter created the synthetic microbe one jounralist proposed that it could wipe out mankind…

    • I’m betwixt and between on an opinion on this. As Goldson also said, in an age of post-normal science, where so much is based on probability, prediction and risk, there are no definite answers. Sometimes a journalist just wants a best guess – but I can appreciate how scientists simply can’t be so definite.

  • Jared,

    I wrote a very brief invitation to discussion about this issue taking my lead paraphrasing the closing remark of a presentation at the local Centre for Science Communication by raising it a question, but posed with more-or-less the opposite view! – “Should media only report facts and leave interpretation to the universities?”

    The thought was that specialists should be quoted for the interpretation, rather than the journalist fleshing it out themselves.

    Personally, I feel a deeper issue is a lack of specialists in the media, perhaps particularly specialist editors/advisors (freelance?) that can catch problems before they end up in print. Even well-meant science writers screw up from time to time as by nature they have to be generalists and with that are writing beyond their knowledge, as it were. There’s more to this, but I’d rather leave it for a blog post of my own where I can ramble at length 😉

  • Yes, there’s many factors at play. Firstly as you’ve noted, an undersupply of journalistic brains. But they are also time constrained (i.e. have to get it out now) and space constrained (never enough room to explain all the nuances of an issue).

    From the newspapers’ point of view I’m not sure how it can be resolved. They’re getting less and less advertising revenue, which in turn diminishes the amount of space they have for editorial.

    Your point about a lack of specialists is also correct – but, it is such a relatively poorly paid profession, that doesn’t really pay for brains.

    All in all, slightly depressing. Which is perhaps one reason Goldson is right, and that scientists shouldn’t be embarrassed about repeating a message (their main point). Illustrate it differently perhaps; but have the same main point when dealing with the general media….even if there’s dozens of caveats and ifs/maybes associated with the probability, prediction and risk of what is being talked about.

  • Peter,

    I assume your reply is to me, not Jared (whom I was writing to).

    I agree with your points, and probably have said as much elsewhere myself,* but the reason I pointed to editors/advisors, rather than journalists (as you wrote), as it’s one possible solution that doesn’t involve large numbers of people or time, just a few at an advisory level.

    I’m not surprised at the advice to repeat is one given for media – it’s something politicians are obviously told to do too; work out the one or two things that they want to say, then keep dropping them in over and over. (It won’t be new either – I recall reading several years ago a similar statement from a book at media issues that written in the 1980s. I have a feeling that advice has been around ‘since forever’!)

    * I’d add, though, that I’m under the impression it’s more than just that media ‘doesn’t pay for brains’ in the case of specialists in that media worldwide has been reducing the specialist staff it had for some time if what others in science communication say is correct. (As opposed to not ever having them; you could also argue that the science positions are shifting to other outlets – it’s a messy playing field. There’s more to this, too, but comments are meant to be brief…)

  • Messy yes, easy answers no. Perhaps it comes down to tailoring the message for the audience – and unfortunately the general public’s (via the traditional media) background knowledge can never be over-estimated

  • Sorry for this, but I don’t see how “tailoring the message for the audience” relates to what I was saying. I’ve said something similar myself, but in a different context. But never mind, I’ll leave all this for some time when I have time to explain myself; I’ve been meaning follow on from my earlier posts on this broad issue for far too many months, but never seem to find time (or the inclination at the time, I guess). I’m too busy for an extended conversation right now. (Flat out until early April.)

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