In this issue: Riding the SOFIA skies, cash lure for researchers and guide to engaging with the public.
Issue 343, 22 Jul 2016


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NASA wraps up SOFIA flights

Another season of infrared observations from NASA's flying telescope has been completed yielding new insights into the universe.

NASA's SOFIA plane has been a fixed presence at Christchurch International Airport over the last couple of months as numerous high-altitude overnight missions were conducted with astronomers using sophisticated instruments to observe infrared energy given off by distant star systems.

SMC Director Peter Griffin had the privilege of tagging along on last Sunday's flight, which had the primary purpose of studying Eta Carinae, a massive star system 7,500 light years away.

SOFIA will return to its California base for further missions with different celestial targets in mind.

Some photos from the SOFIA trip.

SOFIA Boeing 747 on the tarmac at Christchurch Airport

Engineers and astronomers in front of SOFIA's telescope

Astronomer James De Buizer with US Ambassador Mark Gilbert

Quoted: NZ Herald

"Although there is always a danger that something will land on a city or a house, I'd say it's a very remote risk."
Stardome Observatory astronomer Dr Grant Christie,
on space junk falling to Earth.

Cash to lure researchers here

The Government will spend $35 million in a bid to bring leading researchers to New Zealand to bolster our universities.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steve Joyce announced the 'Entrepreneurial Universities' fund this week, saying it was to attract leading researchers to locate their labs and base themselves in New Zealand.

The fund will be a 50/50 partnership between the Government and individual universities to support named researchers and their teams to work in the university for an initial period of three to five years.

Minister Joyce expected up to 15 or 20 researchers would be brought to New Zealand in a three-year period.

New Zealand Association of Scientists president Dr Craig Stevens said the initiative would need careful introduction as it could prove challenging to bring "superstar" researchers into an existing University system.

"It does suggest the Government thinks that home-grown talent is not up to the job," he said. "We hope the groups chosen complement rather than competes with present skills."

"If it can be done well and with care then it could see some great ideas and energetic people injected into the New Zealand science scene."

University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy told the NZ Herald that it was more important to have a well-funded science system.

"In the long run our low funding success rates, the lack of post-doctoral fellowships, and the intensely over-managed science system that has evolved in the past few years will make it hard for our universities to retain these star researchers."

Public engagement guidelines

A set of guidelines lays out good practice for researchers engaging with the public in a wide range of contexts.

After extensive consultation, the Royal Society of New Zealand has published the final version of its Public Engagement Guidelines for Researchers, Scholars and Scientists.

The Society was asked to develop the guidelines as part of the Government's A Nation of Curious Minds strategy. The finalised guidelines, which are voluntary but designed to inform public engagement practices in a number of contexts, from research institutions to public agencies and private science-related companies, lays out some practical ways of delivering clear, evidence-based communication and engagement.

"The guidelines have ended up in a good place," says SMC Director Peter Griffin.

"They strike a decent balance between empowering experts to inform the public about their work and the issues that need explaining and the various responsibilities they have as responsible experts and as employees with various contractual obligations."

A key facet of the guidelines is a series of principles that promote informed public discussion.

"The ability to uphold the free flow of ideas and information, as well as fostering an open, informed debate on matters of public interest, is central to building and maintaining a democratic and inclusive society," the guidelines state. 

"Further, citizens expect to participate in discussion and debate on important public issues. A better-informed community, that is comfortable with research and new and innovative ideas, will have greater capacity and capability to critically assess and absorb new knowledge, and make well-informed decisions."

Griffin said that the SMC would seek to reflect the guidelines in its Science Media SAVVY media training programme and science communication workshops.

"It is great that we now have a reference point for good practice in this area, which takes account of the local context and the various types of employment experts across the country find themselves in."

Download a copy of the guidelines from the Royal Society of New Zealand website.

Policy news & developments

New health pilots: Two new pilot programmes will aim to help patients with both diabetes and mental health issues. Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman announced the pilots for Tairawhiti and Northland district health boards, both of which will run for a year.

Techies to access govt data: Government agencies will get a hand in making their data freely available to kiwi techies so they can build other innovative software. Land Information New Zealand has released guidelines to help government agencies apply open source licences to their software.

Grants for tree planting: The re-launch of the Afforestation Grant Scheme has meant $3.77 million will be invested in 2,900 hectares of new forest planted this year, through 81 grants. Associate Minister for Primary Industries Jo Goodhew said over five years more than 15,000ha of new forest would be planted through the scheme.

Huge 1080 operation begins: Continued large-scale pest control in response to an expected heavy beech seed crop has been launched. An additional $20.7m of Government funds has gone in to Battle for our Birds, allowing aerial 1080 drops across more than 720,000ha of high-value land. 

HIV infections fail to decline

A global study has found HIV infection rates have hardly dropped in the past decade.


The Global Burden of Disease Study 2015 found that the rate of new HIV infections worldwide has stagnated at 2.5 million new cases each year. This is at the same time that annual deaths from AIDS have declined at a steady pace.

University of Canterbury senior lecturer in Health Sciences Dr Adrindam Basu was involved in the global collaboration. He said that the international health community had resolved to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030, with a goal of 90 per cent of those living with HIV being treated by ART (antiretroviral therapy).

New Zealand estimates for new infections are favourable compared to international data, Dr Basu said, which reflects a well-organised, efficient and responsive public health system.

Sue McAllister, who heads the AIDS Epidemiology Group at the University of Otago, said in 2015 only three deaths were reported in New Zealand among people living with AIDS. But there were 224 new HIV diagnoses - a slight increase about 2014's figure of 217 new infections.

Most of the new diagnoses were among men who have sex with men and it was this group that needed to be the focus of prevention efforts.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Shelling out to lure top global research talent: Peter Griffin considers how a new Government initiative to attract top-notch researchers to New Zealand might work.
Griffin's Gadgets

Much scope for improvement: The NZ Health Research Strategy: Professor Nick Wilson kicks the tyres on the Government's Health Research Strategy and details the strengths and weaknesses of current health research in New Zealand.
Public Health Expert

Environment NZ's weak point for UN goals: New Zealand gets a few F-grades in a new report card looking at how well we're on track on the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals.

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Post-whaling biology: 26 July, Auckland. The University of Auckland continues its winter series with Dr Rochelle Constantine discussing current knowledge of whales and how populations are recovering from commercial whaling.
  • Environment advisor's reflections: 27 July, Wellington. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright will deliver the Hudson Lecture, reflecting on a decade in her role.
  • True love on the internet? 28 July, Lower Hutt. CafĂ© Scientifique returns with British psychologist Martin Graff examining the ins and outs of online dating, from a psychology perspective.

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