Issue 494, 19 Oct 2018


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Top news from  the Science Media Centre's news-sharing platform.

Maybe diet isn't to blame for gout

Where will the wave hit?

New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: State of our air

In the News: Honours for Aotearoa’s top researchers, scholars and innovators

In the News: EPA’s reassessment of chemicals

New from the SMC global network

The state of NZ's air quality

The Ministry for the Environment’s latest environmental report shows that air quality in New Zealand is generally good, but some issues persist

Released yesterday, the report is a synthesis of data on air quality, pollutants and quality-of-life impacts. Wood and coal burners continue to be a major cause of poor air quality, but the report also highlights gaps in our data, including for PM2.5 and methyl bromide.

GNS Science air particulate specialist Dr Bill Trompetter said the report highlighted that while we spend 80 to 90 per cent of our time indoors, we know little about indoor air quality in New Zealand.

Preliminary results from GNS Science research has supported overseas studies that "outdoor air pollution does indeed find its way indoors," Dr Trompetter said. "Particularly the smaller, more harmful particles from wood fires and vehicle combustion sources."

"At the same time, we have found that air pollution generated indoors, mainly from cooking and household dust, adds to this to generate high particle concentrations that are inhaled indoors. Therefore, individual exposures may be higher than outdoor air monitoring suggests, with a consequent greater impact on our health outcomes.”

The report also touched on light pollution and its impact on wildlife and our ability to view the night sky. Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin welcomed the report, which he said provided an important baseline for future measurements of light pollution.

"While it is encouraging to note that, when measured in 2014, 74 per cent by land area of the North Island and 93 per cent by land area of the South Island were minimally impacted by light pollution, as most New Zealanders live in cities, it has been estimated that over half of New Zealanders are unable to see the Milky Way.

"A generation of Kiwis is growing up potentially disconnected from the beauty of night sky."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the report.

Quoted: Farmers Weekly

"Based on what we know at the moment I can’t see any reason for the current state of play to change." 

University of Otago toxicologist Dr Belinda Cridge on the use of glyphosate, used in pesticides including Roundup.

Top researchers honoured

Exceptional New Zealand researchers were acknowledged at Research Honours Aotearoa in Wellington on Wednesday.

Royal Society Te Apārangi, which hosted the event, handed out 21 medals and awards and the Health Research Council presented three awards.

The top award, the Rutherford Medal, was awarded to Professor Rod Downey of Victoria University of Wellington for his revolutionary research into mathematical logic and computer science.

His work has been applied to efforts as varied as studying aboriginal children in Australia, reconstructing the "tree of life", understanding the evolution of European languages, and even designing better ways to distribute donated food to charities, the NZ Herald reported.

"There's this wondrous wholeness of mathematics, that as soon as you understand something well enough, it leads into other things and that's what good science is about," he told 1 News.

In addition to the medal, he received a $100,000 prize from the Government.

The Callaghan Medal for science communication was awarded to Dr Helen Taylor from the University of Otago for her work around conservation genetics and threatened species.

One of her initiatives, ‘The Great Hihi Sperm Race’, raised more than $11,000 for hihi conservation and drew supporters from 17 countries, spreading the message about potential fertility problems for inbred birds.

For the first time, the Society issued an award for contribution to Te Ao Māori and indigenous knowledge – named the Te Puāwaitanga Award, given to Professor Linda Tuhiwai-Smith of the University of Waikato.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand also introduced a new award, Te Tohu Rapuora, for Māori health excellence and leadership, which was given to the Te Kotahi Research Institute of the University of Waikato.

Associate Professor Pitama, of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Whare, was awarded the Metge Medal for her influence on indigenous health education and Lisa Matisoo-Smith has been awarded the Mason Durie Medal for her research on human migration into the Pacific. Both women are from the University of Otago.

The full list of winners is on the society's website.

Get Science Media SAVVY

Our final two-day science media training workshop for the year will be held in Wellington next month.

Applications close in just over a week for our flagship media training, being held in November.

Our experienced facilitators provide a supportive environment for researchers to consider their work from different perspectives and find new ways to describe the value of their research to the public. 

Ideally suited for researchers with previous media experience seeking further development of their skills, as well as beginners anticipating media interest in their work. Applications close 29 October.


Policy news & developments

Business advisors: The Prime Minister has announced the members of her Business Advisory Council, which includes Rocket Lab's Peter Beck.

Energy in NZ: Energy demand has increased slightly and renewable electricity generation remained above 80 per cent in 2017, according to MBIE's latest annual energy report.

Antiretroviral proposal: PHARMAC is seeking feedback on a proposal to make changes to the funding of antiretroviral therapies used in the treatment of HIV infection.

Whio success: A record number of 55 whio ducklings hatched in the 2017-18 season in the Oparara Whio security site on the West Coast.

Track closures: More tracks will be closed to limit the spread of kauri dieback, including tracks in Kaitaia, the Kauri Coast, Whangārei, Hauraki, Waikato, and Tauranga and on Aotea/Great Barrier Island.

Tahr control: DOC was set to begin tahr control this week after the release of its operational plan. However, the operation has been put on hold following the death of two DOC staff in a helicopter accident in Wanaka. 

Research sector performance: The 2018 Research, Science and Innovation System Performance Report has been released, outlining how New Zealand's system is performing in key areas.

Operation cap lifted: The Government plans to lift the cap on gender affirmation surgeries for transgender patients. Previously there was a cap of three male-to-female surgeries and one female-to-male surgery every two years - these will become a minimum number of surgeries.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

Bioenergy carbon capture: climate snake oil or the 1.5-degree panacea?
Paul Behrens, Leiden University

See more NZ-authored Conversation articles.

What we've been reading

With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.

For Some Poor Countries, Climate Science Comes Too Late
It's easy to talk about how climate change will alter the Earth's surface in the next century, but it's harder to say how the changes will play out locally, especially when there are areas we know little about, writes Amal Ahmed in The Atlantic.

Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)
What should researchers do when scientific information is misrepresented to support racist causes? Amy Harmon explores the issue in this New York Times feature, and discusses how the story came together in this behind-the-scenes piece.

What Urbanites Can Do To Slow Down Climate Change
Feeling overwhelmed by the latest news from the IPCC? NZ-based science writer Laurie Winkless has some advice for what you can do in your own neighbourhood.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Cheesecake files: A new test to rule out heart attacks in just a few minutes

John Pickering reports on new research from the team at Christchurch Hospital trialling a bedside blood test to rule out heart attacks.
Kidney Punch
NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals, not glyphosate

The NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals it has selected as of highest concern. This list doesn’t include glyphosate.
Code for Life
The myth of judging people on their merits

Nancy Longnecker writes about gender bias in academia and the myth of the meritocracy.
Guest Work
Bursting the Conservation Bubble with Birds

After four years running Bird of the Year, Kimberley Collins reflects on why it's a fun way to get New Zealanders talking about conservation.
Up and Atom

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Navigating disruption: 23 October, Hamilton. Tim Coltman will discuss how businesses can navigate a time of change from disruptive technologies like robotics, AI and blockchain.
  • Housing crisis: 23 October, Auckland. Bernie Smith will present the annual Bruce Jesson lecture on the housing crisis - a smoking gun with no silver bullet.
  • Innovation for sustainability: 24 October, Hamilton. Céline Louche will discuss the findings of a recent study on business model innovation for sustainability.
  • Journey through the gut: 24 October, Auckland. Leo Cheng will describe his team's research quantifying the electrical activity in the gut and evaluating new diagnostic and therapeutic techniques for gut disorders.
  • Stroke opportunities: 25 October, Auckland. Alan Barber and Julian Paton will discuss new research opportunities in stroke.
  • Politics, religion, evolution: 25 October, Auckland. In his inaugural professorial lecture, Quentin Atkinson will show how interdisciplinary research on politics, religion and cultural evolution is helping to answer big questions about ourselves.
  • Drug regulation: 26 October, Auckland. Helen Clark and Ruth Dreifuss - both members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy - will outline how drug regulation is moving from theory to practical reality.
  • Curators for equality: 27 October, Wellington. Te Papa curators Katie Cooper and Matariki Williams discuss the new exhibition Doing It for Themselves: Women Fight for Equality and how objects connect history with modern experiences.

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