Grant Jacobs

Dr Grant Jacobs is a computational biologist, a biologist who uses computers (algorithms, statistics, etc.) to explore biological systems, and who develops computer algorithms and tools for biologists to explore data from genes, genomes and proteins. He contracts to research groups and biotech companies through his Dunedin-based consultancy, BioinfoTools. He has an established interest in science communications and is open to science communication work as well as computational biology. Grant is on Twitter, @BioinfoTools.

Glyphosate and TIME magazine: writer employed by advocacy group a dubious choice - Code for life

Nov 24, 2018

TIME magazine has a story on DeWayne ‘Lee’ Johnston who took Monsanto to court claiming RoundUp caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.[1] The story has obvious appeal, but is crying out for balance and it’s provenance is, to be kind, awkward. I’d love to read his account of his experiences since the trial — but from a source I can trust. I’m dubious that a writer employed by an advocacy organisation can be sensibly used as a journalist. A reply I responded on TIME’s Facebook page, I’d encourage TIME to use independent science writers to cover contentious science-related stories. Your magazine has, or should have, a higher standard than drawing emotive pieces from advocacy groups unchallenged by balance. That Johnson’s version of his story has obvious human appeal ought to be … Read More

The origin of a false claim: projecting demons - Code for life

Oct 24, 2018

Seeing the origin of a false claim from its very beginning gives insight into where they come from. Contentious topics have many claims online, many completely untrue. Knowing how false claims arise might help us resolve them. It’s also a reminder if you see a claim, especially an emotive one, it pays to check first. Here’s one from people projecting something they oppose onto a straight-forward, accurate information source. They didn’t ‘misinterpret’ something complex, they put their projection on something that had emotional resonance. Let’s have a closer look. A deer covered in fibromas (benign growths) This photo has gotten about in some circles on the internet,[1] Some people say the deer developed these fibromas from eating plants sprayed with glyphosate. Not true, not at all; more on that later. How did this claim come about? When I … Read More

NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals, not glyphosate - Code for life

Oct 18, 2018

The NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals it has selected as of highest concern. This list doesn’t include glyphosate. We all like to know what we’re up against when using chemicals, so that we can avoid unnecessary risk. That’s one of the aims of the EPA:[1] to offer rulings and information to help us. I’m interested in genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and other genetic techniques like gene editing. Knowing the history of a topic helps to see where things are coming from. Glyphosate (and RoundUp[2]) has been demonised by groups opposed to GMOs: attacking glyphosate is seen as a way to ‘get at’ one company that produces GMOs, Monsanto. It’s also leveraged by some pushing ‘organic’ farming. Where do things stand with glyphosate, and how does the EPA’s shortlist reflect Eugenie Sage’s statement that she was considering asking the EPA … Read More

Glyphosate is to go back to trial - Code for life

Oct 13, 2018

Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos[1] has written a Tentative Ruling that glyphosate is to go back to trial. I’m not a lawyer, but her ruling looks pretty damning. Let’s have a look at what it says. What’s a Tentative Ruling? Tentative rulings are preliminary indications of rulings ahead of the final ruling. (Lawyers indicate these tentative rulings rarely differ substantially from the final rulings.) As described in wikipedia, judgement not withstanding the verdict (JNOV) is, the practice in American courts whereby the presiding judge in a civil jury trial may overrule the decision of a jury and reverse or amend their verdict. This wikipedia entry is brief, clear and worth reading. Towards the end it notes, Reversal of a jury’s verdict by a judge occurs when the judge believes that there were insufficient facts on which to base the … Read More

Vaccines and risk on Auckland motorway billboard - Code for life

Oct 02, 2018

There’s a new billboard on South Auckland motorway near the exit to Middlemore hospital encouraging drivers to question the safety of vaccines, Short answer: yes. But what’s in vaccines is not really the issue, it’s a way to distract people from the real question: are you better off with the vaccine than without it? You could turn this around and ask: if you knew the harms causes by vaccine-preventable illnesses, would you risk not vaccinating? (Hell, no.) What you need to know are the risks from the vaccines compared to the risks from the illness the vaccine prevents. It’s the balance of risks that matters The Western Australian Dept. of Health has a useful side-by-side list comparing the risks of the illness and the vaccine for most of the common vaccines. In all of them you’re … Read More

A foil to the populist scourge: towards a Science Commission for New Zealand? - Code for life

Sep 24, 2018

While writing about the demise of Jacqueline Rowarth’s role as head of the New Zealand Environment Protection Agency (NZ EPA), Peter Griffin (former head of the Science Media Centre) also covers progress towards a NZ Science Commission. His piece provides an useful opportunity to revisit this initiative, raised during the election, and how it seems to be going sideways since. Is an opportunity to lift and safeguard New Zealand’s decision making at a time policies worldwide are on rough ground being missed? Could a skeleton Science Commission be set up to establish the concept as a new feature of the political and policy landscape, and flesh it out later? A foil to the populist scourge I won’t be alone in pointing out the usefulness of an established, independent source of policy evidence. It would be great to see New Zealand … Read More

Sticky thoughts on where research can most effectively influence policy - Code for life

Aug 30, 2018

New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA), Professor Juliet Gerrard, has been asking where research can most effectively influence policy – one post-it note at a time, (Posted 21st August ~10:45pm, NZST; click on image to open tweet.) The comments after this piece are open for readers to offer their thoughts on where science should best influence policy. Please do! As I’m currently off-shore so I can’t attend these meetings. Besides, I always have too much to say… I’ll add my contribution below and hope readers will join in. Sticky-sticky-sticky She posted a photo to give me (and others) some idea of what’s happening – (Taken from the PMCSA website twitter feed, 21st August. Click on image to see tweet.) Some people have written 3 or 4 words. Others have crammed a mini essay onto a post-it. These must … Read More

Food Evolution – screening at Queenstown August 31st - Code for life

Aug 27, 2018

Food Evolution, the movie, is screening at Queenstown at the end of the month. If you’re in the area, check it out. It’s free: you just have to register at EventBrite. The screening and panel discussion is in the Clancy’s Meeting Room, Level 5, Rydges Lakeland Resort, from 7pm on Fri. 31 August. The film is narrated by well-known science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, Amidst a brutally polarizing debate marked by passion, suspicion and confusion the FOOD EVOLUTION movie expolores the controversy surrounding GMOs and food. Traveling from Hawaiian papaya groves to banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa, the film, narrated by esteemed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, wrestles with the emotions and the science driving one of the most heated arguments of our time. In the GMO debate, both pro- and anti- camps claim science is on … Read More

Newspaper warns of human-induced climate change in 1912 - Code for life

Aug 17, 2018

We’ve had more than 100 years of warnings of human-induced climate change now. It’s nearer 200 years, really. Before records were taken they would be extrapolations rather than observations. Extrapolations are harder for those outside of science to trust, but extrapolations are part of what science does. Looking to where things might go is useful. This pithy, insightful newspaper article is doing the rounds of social media again: Credit: Sustainable Business Network The basic idea was in fact well established by then. Alexander von Humboldt is a legendary figure.* In his day he was the equal of Darwin or Goethe. He theorised about human-induced climate change from 1799 onwards. He was one of the first, if not the first, to raise it. His ideas came from observing the effects of deforestation, from seeing changes in flora at different … Read More

USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call - Code for life

Aug 13, 2018

A lot has been said about a recent court case ruling about Monsanto’s Roundup. Let’s look just at the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call for the New Zealand Environment Protection Agency (NZ EPA) review their stance on Roundup. The role IARC seems to be very little understood. Many media reports (worldwide) on this court case offer a throw-away statement that the IARC report and regulatory rulings conflict. They are not in competition. The regulatory bodies have not “set aside” or “overlooked” the IARC findings. (That’s a lobby-group line.) In practice, regulatory bodies are using the IARC reports as they are meant to. This seems to have confused by objections to IARC’s findings, a parallel issue. Adding to the mix, in New Zealand the Associate Environment Minister, Eugenie Sage, has said she will ask the NZ EPA to … Read More