Issue 499, 23 Nov 2018


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Expert Reaction: Twitter ‘bots’ spreading misinformation

Expert Reaction: Kauri dieback and myrtle rust research funding boost

Expert Reaction: Mars 2020 landing site

Expert Reaction: National Science Challenges mid-way review​

In the News: National Science Challenges investment

New from the SMC global network

Biosecurity funding boost

Research into combatting kauri dieback and myrtle rust was given a $13.75 million funding boost this week.

The investment will be used to accelerate the work already being done by Government agencies, councils, research providers, Māori and interest groups, Minister Megan Woods announced.

The BioHeritage Challenge – one of the National Science Challenges – will receive the funding to conduct the research and it will be split between the two diseases with work on myrtle rust receiving $5m and kauri dieback $8.75m.

The new funding is on top of previous research funding of $6.9m for myrtle rust and $4.7m for kauri dieback allocated in 2018/19.

BioHeritage Challenge kaihautū Nick Waipara said his team was acutely aware of the urgent need to stop the diseases spreading, but his excitement at the new funding came with caveats, Newsroom reported.

“It’s not a huge, huge programme. Research is quite expensive. It’s not going to solve everything we need to know about kauri dieback.”

Challenge director Andrea Byrom told Newshub that what is needed is to "know where it is, how to detect it, and what to do to shut it down".

But University of Otago statistician Dr Phillip Wilcox said much more funding was needed to tackle the problem. 

"That money that's been allocated will probably seal some of the gaps but maybe not all of them, and maybe not the most important ones either."

Days before the announcement, Minister Woods approved a separate $422.5 million total additional investment in the 11 National Science Challenges, saying they were "fundamentally changing the way science is being undertaken in New Zealand".

The decision followed a mid-way review of the challenges and brings the investment so far to $680m, but it was met with some scientists calling for greater transparency around the work.

Professor Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland, wanted to see more public data on who is being funding for what, the NZ Herald reported.

“Right now its very hard to tell whether the challenges are engaging well with emerging or Māori researchers, for example, or whether funding is going to an old boys’ network.”

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the biosecurity funding boost and the National Science Challenges review.

Quoted: RNZ

"If you're going to really try and transform the science system and put these goals out there ... there should be some analysis of the extent to which that's working or not, so I think that's what we'd like to see."   

MacDiarmid Institute and University of Auckland Associate Professor Nicola Gaston on the National Science Challenges mid-way review, which has not been publicly released.

Mars landing site chosen

NASA has announced the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover, which is due to touch down in February 2021 in a mission to search for signs of ancient life.

A giant impact basin known as the Jezero Crater was the winning site from four final contenders – chosen for its geographically rich terrain, with landforms up to 3.6 billion years old which NASA hopes will shed insight into the planet’s ability to sustain life.

The mission will see scientists use the Mars 2020 rover to collect rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth in a future mission.

University of Auckland astrobiologist Professor Kathy Campbell was part of a team that unsuccessfully pitched a hot springs landing site known as Columbia Hills - which has already been visited by the Spirit rover, where it got stuck in late 2009, she told Newstalk ZB.

Hot springs are hotbeds of microbial life on Earth, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to send a better-equipped rover to finish what Spirit started, she said, but believed the space agency wanted to avoid repetition.

"In a way, there's a huge advantage of us knowing what's going on, and in a way which was a huge disadvantage in terms of site selection. They just wanted to go somewhere new and make new discoveries."

Dr Duncan Steel from the Centre for Space Science Technology said there was generally a trade-off between where the engineers would choose, and where the scientists would like to go.

"The engineers’ job is to get the mission landed without a mishap, whereas the scientists want to go to the most interesting places – and ‘interesting’ generally means ‘dangerous’."

Next week, NASA’s InSight mission is scheduled to land on the Red Planet, which will investigate the planet’s crust, mantle and core.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the announcement. 

Upcoming SAVVY workshops

Our flagship media training course returns in 2019 - with the first two-day workshop of the year in Christchurch.

Further 2019 workshops will be confirmed at a later date, but we're taking applications for Christchurch now, and it would be a good idea to apply before Christmas:

  • Christchurch 
    7-8 February

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 10 January


SAVVY Express

We're also bringing our 15-minute media training Science Media SAVVY Express programme to two conferences before the end of the year.  Participants in SAVVY Express receive individual coaching to help them speak on camera about their research in an engaging way, and receive a polished 90-second video edited from their best takes during the session as an added bonus.

We work hard to create a supportive, confidence-building environment for participants, and find the conference setting provides an ideal opportunity for busy researchers to try their hand at new skills.

SAVVY Express is also great for experienced researchers seeking a quick refresher of prior media training.

We'll be at the following conferences before the end of the year. If you'll be attending, sign up for a session and encourage your fellow conference-goers to do so too.

28 Nov    Dunedin    Microbes & Molecules Conference
13 Dec    Wellington     2018 One Health Aotearoa Symposium

More information on SAVVY Express and the sign-up forms can be found here

Contact us if you're organising a conference in 2019 and would like to discuss potentially holding a SAVVY Express session.

Policy news & developments

New judge: Melinda Dickey has been appointed as an Environment Court Judge, based out of Auckland.

Middlemore fix: The Government will invest $80 million to address long-standing problems at Middlemore Hospital and the Manukau SuperClinic.

Tāne Mahuta all-clear: New tests have not detected any sign of kauri dieback close to Tāne Mahuta in Waipoua Forest.

111 call locations: 111 calls from all mobile phones in New Zealand will soo have their locations verified to enable faster response in an emergency.

Seabird agreement: A cooperative arrangement between New Zealand and Chile will help protect vulnerable seabirds like the endangered Antipodean albatross.

Biosecurity fines: New fines are being introduced for arriving vessels, containment facilities and cruise ship passengers for biosecurity offences.

Regulations for vaping: The Government has announced a plan to regulate vaping, including a ban inside public places like bars, restaurants and workplaces.

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.

As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper, how can NZ stem the tide?
Published in last month's The Listener, but now available online, Veronika Meduna's feature article explores how New Zealand companies are responding following China's refusal to take the world's rubbish for recycling.

A billion new trees in a warming world
The plan to plant a billion trees sounds good on paper, but what risk do those trees pose if flammable species are planted in unsuitable areas? Farah Hancock talked to Lincoln University's Tim Curran for Newsroom.

Has the time come for Genetic Modification?
Reporting for RNZ's Insight, science reporter Charlie Dreaver asks should we back or block the genetically changed plants New Zealand scientists are growing.

125,000 buildings at risk from first metre of sea level rise
Eloise Gibson reports for Newsroom on updated, draft estimates of how much residential and commercial real estate could be at risk from just one metre of sea level rise.

What would real climate action actually look like?
Earlier this week 150 academics and researchers penned an open letter calling for more action on climate change, The Spinoff's Alex Braae considers what such action could look like.

On November 26th, a mole will land on Mars
Did you know NASA's Insight lander is scheduled to touch down on Mars next week? Cartoonist The Oatmeal has all you need to know about the mission.

How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over Thanksgiving
As the USA celebrates Thanksgiving, some families will be battling to have civil conversations across partisan divides. The New York Times presents a chatbot to help navigate conversations where there may be a clash of values.

Killer Tulips Hiding in Plain Sight
Researchers were puzzled when patients at a clinic in the Netherlands who had an Aspergillus infection were resistant to a common treatment, despite never being exposed to it before. This feature in The Atlantic traces the path back to antifungals used on the country's famous tulips.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Biological variability and Pakistani batting collapses

Marcus Wilson has been telling science communication students to blog about what they're interested in, so he took a slice of his own advice and wrote about cricket.​
Physics Stop
A pivotal species? What’s that?

Is someone you know sitting Scholarship Biology this year? Alison Campbell is back with more tips on how to answer curly questions.​
The Ethical Quandary of Human Infection Studies

Sometimes infecting volunteers with a disease can lead to new treatments. But how much risk and compensation is acceptable for those in poor nations?​
Guest Work
Colonising Mars means contaminating Mars – and never knowing for sure if it had its own native life

Before we can talk about possible colonisation of Mars, we must talk about possible contamination.
Guest Work

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Ecology conference: 25-29 November, Wellington. The New Zealand Ecological Society's conference will include sessions on introduced mammals, freshwater and climate.
  • Microbes and Molecules: 26-29 November, Dunedin. A joint annual meeting between the Microbiological Society and the Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
  • Public health and communities: 26 November, Dunedin. Sarah Derrett's inaugural professorial lecture will discuss her research on health and disability outcomes.
  • Earthquake engineering: 27 November, Christchurch. For the first time, New Zealand and Japanese researchers will meet to discuss structural and geotechnical earthquake engineering.
  • Health and disability system: 27 November, Auckland. Peter Crampton will discuss how the Health and Disability System Review provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-think the design of our health system.
  • Deep Time Dreaming: 27 November, Wellington. Billy Griffiths will discuss his book examining ancient Australia through the science and art of archaeology.
  • Brain Plasticity: 27 November, Dunedin. Catherine Blizzard will discuss her work trying to work out why neurons stop communicating properly in motor neuron disease.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies: 28 November, Dunedin. Ken Brown will give a public talk on assessment and control of vitamin and mineral deficiencies globally.
  • Social history of the fern: 29 November, Wellington. Pat Brownsey will discuss the role of ferns in the social history of New Zealand and how it has achieved iconic status.

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