Issue 516, 05 Apr 2019

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New from the SMC


Expert Q&A: Green hydrogen industry in NZ

Expert Q&A: Scale of current measles outbreak

Expert Reaction: EPA investigation into firefighting foams 

Expert Reaction: How NZ birds lost flight 

In the News: Facebook’s open letter to New Zealand

In the News: R&D tax credits scheme takes effect

Blog: New science journalism projects funded

New from the SMC global network

No charges for PFOS-foams

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has found firefighting foams containing banned chemical PFOS at 17 sites across New Zealand, but no prosecutions will be made.

PFOS foams were removed from the Firefighting Chemicals Group Standard in 2006, meaning they could no longer be imported into New Zealand. In 2011, all PFOS products were completely banned and strict controls were set to manage their storage and disposal.

Since Dec 2017, the EPA has investigated 166 sites, including airports, ports, refineries, petrochemical storage sites and ships. They found firefighting foam containing PFOS at several regional airports, four sites controlled by Shell Taranaki Ltd, two tug boats, and at a tyre company. Foam containing lower levels of PFOS was also found at other sites, most likely due to contamination. In their report, the EPA state all detected foams appear to have been imported prior to 2006, so it's unlikely the original import law has been broken.

Despite 20 tip-offs and five compliance orders issued, (four to regional airports and one to Lyttelton Port) no prosecutions were made for failing to dispose of products containing PFOS. EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth told Newsroom it preferred voluntary compliance or the use of compliance orders over legal action.

Freeth told RNZ: "It came down to, was there deliberate and wilful breaching of the Act? We found no indication that there was."

Even though the banned foam was found in a number of sites, there was no public health risk from the PFOS found in the EPA investigation, Massey University's Deborah Read told the SMC, as "the foam was within equipment that was labelled and securely stored". However, she says it's important this banned substance is safely removed and disposed of to prevent any future exposure of people or the environment.

As for those who used the foam in the past, Dr Arindam Basu from the University of Canterbury told the SMC it was likely occupational exposures occurred, but "as health effects are largely long term, immediate health effects may not occur”, so these would need to be followed up.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the EPA's report. 

Quoted: Stuff

"If every human being treated the planet as we would treat our grandmothers – with a sense of respect and nurturing for her wellbeing – we would easily solve the problem."

Dr Alex Pezza, senior climate scientist at Greater Wellington Regional Council in an opinion piece on climate inaction.

How NZ birds lost flight

Flightless birds like kiwi still have the genes for flight, they just don't have the ability to turn those genes on, according to a study published today in Science. 


The genomes of three species of kiwi, the extinct moa and other flightless birds from the ratite group have revealed these birds still have the genes to grow wings.

Instead of simply losing these genes over time, their flightlessness stems from changes to the part of the genome that control how a gene is expressed.

"This work tells us more about the origins of moa and kiwi," co-author Paul Gardner from the University of Otago's Department of Biochemistry told Newshub. He believes the study supports the idea that "ancestral moa flew here, while the ancestral kiwi, which is related to the emu, may have walked, or indeed flown from the likes of Australia or Madagascar over the ancient Gondwanan continent".

Dr Nic Rawlence, an ancient DNA researcher from the University of Otago who was not involved in the study, told the NZ Herald the results indicate that de-extincting the moa is even harder than previously thought, as "having a genome does not mean you can bring back the dead – there's a whole lot of regulation of that genome that you would also have to recreate as well".

The SMC gathered expert comments on the study. 

Policy news & developments


Flu jab lands: The 2019 influenza immunisation programme began on April 2, with people over 65, pregnant women, and those with compromised immunity given free access.

Gun laws legislation: The specifics of the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines and Parts) Amendment Bill were announced on Monday.

Stink bug controls: MPI is seeking feedback on plans for stricter import requirements for vehicles and sea containers.

Fisheries phony fined: A Kaikōura man was fined for telling tourists they had caught undersized fish and demanding money from them.

RMA plans: New National Planning Standards for the Resource Management Act will reduce complaince costs and make the Act easier to understand.

Free or cheap contraception: Women with Community Service cards or who live in low income areas will have better access to contraception.

Cartels and price fixing: A law change has made price fixing and other cartel behaviour a criminal offence.

Citrus agreement: Biosecurity New Zealand and Citrus New Zealand have agreed to jointly conduct a 3-year work programme to guard the citrus industry from biosecurity threats.

Horse muster: DOC will go ahead with the planned muster of up to 80 Kaimanawa horses.

Biodiversity report card: The 6th Convention of Biological Diversity report shows how New Zealand is tracking against national and global biodiversity targets

Taranaki: green fuel hub?

On March 15, the Prime Minister released a roadmap for transitioning the Taranaki region from an oil and gas producer to a green hydrogen hub.


Generated by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable energy, Taranaki is "perfectly positioned" for producing green hydrogen, Venture Taranaki chief executive Justine Gilliland told the NZ Herald: "We have significant water, wind and solar resources, existing hydrogen production infrastructure and expertise, and established energy generation and distribution infrastructure."

Scion's clean technologies expert Dr Paul Bennett said "hydrogen is a very flexible energy source, and can be used as a fuel for transportation, heat and power generation". But beyond a simple fuel, "there is also an opportunity to use hydrogen as a means to export renewable energy".

This export opportunity was the focus of a discussion paper by Katherine Errington from the newly formed policy think tank, The Helen Clark Foundation. The paper notes the bones of a hydrogen export industry are already in place, as last year the government signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Japan and, in January, a pilot plant to convert geothermal electricity to hydrogen started construction near Taupō.

Because of our abundant renewable energy sources, hydrogen could be very cheap to produce in New Zealand, so long as "hydrogen production plants take renewable electricity from the grid at times where there is an excess supply," University of Otago's Prof Richard Blaikie told the SMC

But it's not all blue skies and windy days. According to Harvey Weake, an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland, "the biggest risk is picking winners in tomorrow’s energy landscape, of which hydrogen is only one solution". 

"There are a number of more commercially compelling options (e.g. methanol) than using hydrogen, which inherently carries a safety risk due to the enormous pressure stored on board a car," Weake said.

The SMC prepared a Q&A with energy experts about the potential of a hydrogen industry in NZ

Sci-journo projects funded

Five new projects will be funded in the latest round of the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund.

Projects have been awarded under the following themes:

Science in the public interest 
$5000 to Kate Evans for her project “Rough seas: Investigating New Zealand’s fisheries management system” – for publication in New Zealand Geographic. Funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Sea level rise in Aotearoa New Zealand
$3700 to Eloise Gibson for “Uncharted waters” – a written feature with graphics, for Newsroom.
$2300 to Charlie Mitchell for “Frontlines” – a multimedia exploration of the intersection between sea-level rise and socio-economic issues for Stuff. Funded by NZ SeaRise programme.

Stronger homes on better land
$1750 to Charlie Dreaver from RNZ for a multimedia radio package for Our Changing World and Morning Report on “Living the high life on shaky ground: Earthquake strengthening New Zealand’s apartments”. Funded by the Earthquake Commission.

Open call
$3000 for Nadine Hura for “E Hinemoana, E Tangaroa / Facing the rising tide” – for publication in The Spinoff. This theme is funded up to $1500 by our Press Patron supporters and the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize. In recognition of the high quality of this application from an emerging journalist, it has also been granted an additional $1500 from the NZ SeaRise programme.


This week on the NZ Conversation.


Mega study confirms pregnant women can reduce risk of stillbirth by sleeping on their side
Lesley McCowan and Robin Cronin, University of Auckland


How to get ready as the US-China trade war spills over to other countries
Hongzhi Gao, Ivy Guo, Victoria University of Wellington; Tarek Soliman, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research

The importance of sports in recovery from trauma: lessons from and for Christchurch
Holly Thorpe and Nida Ahmad, University of Waikato

Playing in overtime: why the Crusaders rugby team is right to rethink brand after Christchurch attack
Geoff Troughton, Victoria University of Wellington


Why do we mix up faces? Game of Thrones might help us find the answer
Christel Devue and Gina Grimshaw, Victoria University of Wellington


See more NZ-authored content on the new New Zealand page.

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.

Astonishment, skepticism greet fossils claimed to record dinosaur-killing asteroid impact
Colin Barras decries that the actual scientific significance of a paper published last week in PNAS has been overlooked after a splashy piece in the The New Yorker added scientific claims not included in the paper - including that numerous dinosaurs were buried at the site.

Is it OK for journalists to cry on camera?
For many reporters covering the Christchurch terror attacks, detachment and objectivity gave way to human emotion. On The Spinoff, journalist-turned-academic Dr Rukhsana Aslam argues that’s perfectly fine. 

Q+A: Troll hunter Ginger Gorman on the Christchurch mosque shootings and cyberhate
Stuff's Katie Kenny talks to Australian journalist and cyberhate expert Ginger Gorman about how her research can relate to the Christchurch killer. 

Fat? Why your body is not a problem to be fixed
The disparities that exist health-wise between fat people and non-fat people can be explained by the structural discrimination and stigma fat people experience, writes Naomi Arnold for Canvas Magazine.

Travelling post-quake Kaikōura: What it's like three years on
Kate Evans boards the Coastal Pacific for North&South and reflects on the changes to the landscape in the three years since she was last there to cover the Kaikōura earthquake.

Ketamine could have big impact on NZ's struggle with depression
A version of the club drug ketamine has been licensed in the United States which could pave the way for new, rapid treatment of depression in New Zealand, Brad Flahive reports for Stuff. 

The hidden air pollution in our homes
Outdoor air has been regulated for decades, but emissions from daily domestic activities may be more dangerous than anyone imagined, writes Nicola Twilley for The New Yorker.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network


Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Orbit of the newly-launched R3D2 satellite

Last Friday Rocket Lab successfully launched another satellite from the Mahia Peninsula: R3D2.
Out of Space
Island focus to reduce extinction

Focusing conservation efforts on 169 islands, including five in New Zealand, could help to combat the global extinction crisis, writes Erin Maessen.
News
With Vaccine Misinformation, Libraries Walk a Fine Line

A beloved symbol of impartiality and free access to information - the public library - may now find itself at the centre of the vaccine misinformation scrum.
Guest Author
Beyond the Robofarm

It’s easy to get momentarily excited about robots on the farm, writes Robert Hickson, but it's false to think they are the future of farming.
Ariadne

Upcoming events


Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • NZ Aerospace Challenge: April 8, Christchurch. Roadshow for the 2019 NZ aerospace challenge. Entrants gain to win $30,000 for a product or service that detects, monitors or measures water or soil pollution.
     
  • What should be on our plate?: April 8, Dunedin. Sheila Skeaff will discuss the importance of which foods we should put on our plate.
     
  • Childhood adversity: April 8, Dunedin. Melissa Hagan will examine the psychological and physical consequences of childhood trauma and what resilience methods can be used to help wellbeing.
     
  • Death of a human soul: April 8, Dunedin. Bioethicists argue that for some people, life partly ends before death through the diminution of the living soul by being unable to access key parts of the brain central to neuroscience.
     
  • Communicating climate change: April 8, Wellington. Is it better to be an ‘alarmist’, a ‘realist’, or an ‘optimist’? The 2018 Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize winner James Renwick talks about how to communicate climate change.
     
  • Inefficient Agriculture is Killing Iran: April 9, Palmerston North. Sirous Amerian explains how climate change has affected Iran and how the increasing population has put pressure on the agricultural sector to produce more food. 
     
  • Creative visual design: April 9, Wellington. Two international experts talk about advances in computer graphics and computer science.
     
  • Solving crime through language: April 9, Wellington. When you’re trying to catch the perpetrator and all you’ve got to go on is the words themselves, you’re going to need a forensic linguist. RSVP closes today (Friday 5th April). 
     
  • Linking up tech: April 9, Christchurch. AgriTechNZ, BIOTechNZ and the New Zealand IoT Alliance discuss how we can scale-up New Zealand tech companies in the primary sector.
     
  • EVs at the museum: April 10, Dunedin. The national EV road trip from Cape Reinga will be stopping by the Otago Museum for chats and a documentary screening.
     
  • Continents split asunder: April 10, Auckland. Annalise Higgins discusses 19th-century projects to overcome maritime issues with isthmuses and the cultural impacts of these feats of engineering.
     
  • Flippers and wings: April 10, Auckland. Over the past decades, wildlife tourism has evolved from niche activities to more mainstream tourism products, and marine wildlife tourism is no exception.
  •  
  • Radicalisation: April 11, Wellington. Gabe Mythen will discuss the radicalisation process and consider what is typically left out of accounts of politically and religiously motivated violence. Registration required.
     
  • Ko Matariki e ārau ana: April 11, Blenheim, April 12, Christchurch, April 18, Dunedin. Rangi Matamua will give a talk on Matariki and highlighting connections between matauranga Māori and science.
     
  • Commercialisation of space: April 14, Christchurch. Sciblogger Duncan Steel from CSST will talk about how satellites are revolutionising our world.
     
  • Understanding the high energy universe: April 15, Christchurch. Jenni Adams is part of a large-scale scientific mission using an intriguing elementary particle, the neutrino, to understand the highest energy processes in the Universe.
     
  • The Health of the People: April 17, Wellington. At his book launch, David Skegg will argue that health crises such as the 2016 Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak highlight weaknesses in our country’s health infrastructure.






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