Issue 496, 02 Nov 2018


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

Does upping the alcohol tax cut the road toll?

Giant elephant birds roamed the night

New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: Abortion law reform

Expert Reaction: Mobile phone cancer link in rats

New from the SMC global network

Attitudes to euthanasia

A review of 20 years of research has indicated strong public support among Kiwis for euthanasia or assisted dying, and that support had remained stable over time.

Otago researchers examined 26 existing studies which asked what people thought of euthanasia, and found on average, 68.3 per cent of people support euthanasia and 14.9 per cent oppose legislative change.

The research comes as New Zealand considers the End of Life Choice Bill which proposes to give people with a terminal, grievous or irremediable illness the option of requesting assisted dying.

Lead author and research fellow Jessica Young told Radio NZ it was less clear what forms of euthanasia should be available or when and how it should be accessible.

People have different reasons for supporting or opposing assisted dying, she said. Some people did not want to be a burden on family. "I think that was related to society valuing independence, autonomy and being able to reciprocate in relationships."

Speaking on Breakfast, Young said there was slightly less support for assisted dying in non-terminal cases, "for example, if someone has a condition like motor neuron disease that will ultimately shorten their life but won't be the thing that takes their life".

The researchers found support and opposition varied across health professional specialities, with palliative care specialists being mostly opposed to euthanasia or assisted dying, while GPs were more evenly divided in their views.

More research was needed to examine the attitudes of both Kiwis who are approaching the end of life, and people with disabilities, as those two views were missing from the review.

Public consultation painted a different picture, as there was a certain "motivated" group of people who were likely to make a submission, she said.

More information about the study is available on

Quoted: Newsroom

"You only have to look at the latest The Block NZ to see it - artificial turf going in for simple low maintenance. They're not looking at the cost benefits, and the benefits definitely outweigh the costs." 

Uuniversity of Auckland urban ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley on the loss of tree canopy in Auckland's inner city suburbs over the past 10 years.

Abortion law reform options

Options for decriminalising abortion have been outlined in a briefing paper to Justice Minister Andrew Little, after he commissioned the work in February.

The 300-page briefing, prepared by the Law Commission, outlines three options for reform – all of which include taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.

The sticking point is around whether a statutory test should be required before an abortion could be performed – meaning the health practitioner performing the abortion must be satisfied the procedure is appropriate, taking into account the woman’s physical and mental health.

This differs from current practice, which requires two doctors to agree pregnancy would put a woman in physical or mental danger.

The options are:
A: no statutory test: decision made by the pregnant woman in consultation with her health practitioner
B: statutory test
C: no statutory test until 22 weeks.

University of Otago Associate Professor Joe Boden, deputy director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, felt option A was the best way forward - saying the statutory test options were too problematic.

The test requires a physician to certify that a woman’s mental health and wellbeing will be improved if she has an abortion, but there was currently no evidence to suggest this happened, he said.

"Elective abortion does have an effect on life outcomes, such that it allows women to continue on their life course pathway without interruption."

Associate Professor Liz Beddoe, a University of Auckland social work researcher, said it's important not to lose sight of the people wrestling with these decisions, as options are debated and politicians lobbied.

"[W]hile this debate is happening, real people are facing decisions over an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, or a wanted pregnancy where hopes have been dashed by a medical diagnosis."

The Law Commission has also suggested removing the requirement for doctors to perform the procedure and allowing them to be carried out by nurses and midwives - a call which has been backed by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the options. 

Mobile phone risk questioned

US research suggests a link between mobile phone radiation and cancer in male rats, but experts have said the results may not be directly applicable to humans.

Published by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the study concluded male rats developed cancerous heart tumours after exposure to high levels of radiation similar to that used in 2G and 3G phones. The effect was not found in female rats or in male or female mice.

The US Food and Drug Administration responded to the study by pointing out some unusual findings, including that rats exposed to whole body radiofrequency energy lived longer than the unexposed control group. The FDA concluded that existing safety levels remained acceptable for protecting public health.

Massey University's Dr Faraz Hasan said the study was useful in that it measured the impact on living creatures, but had "considered the worst case scenario" by starting with the maximum exposure allowed by international standards.

Professor Kevin McConway from the UK's Open University told the UK SMC the study did not shed any light on the risks of phone use in humans. "I'm not going to stop using my mobile phone in light of this".

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study.

Policy news & developments

Pike River options: The Pike River Recovery Agency has identified three re-entry options to recover the mine's drift.

NAIT improvements: MPI has opened consultation on proposed changes to the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme.

Space agreement: MBIE has signed an agreement with Airbus to develop capability in New Zealand's Unmanned Aircraft and space data technology sectors.

Sexual health: Initial results from the Sexual health survey indicated half of New Zealanders have had sex by the age of 17.

Water clear: Water samples following a 1080 operation in Russell Forst came back clear, with no detectable 1080 after 39 hours.

Electric trains: Fifteen electric trains will be refurbished and will continue to run between Hamilton and Palmerston North.

Gall mite approved: The EPA has approved an application from Horizons Regional Council to introduce a gall mite to control old man's beard.

Gull control: Control work started this week to reduce the number of southern black-backed gulls in the Hurunui River.

Fly sprays assessed: The EPA will investigate products containing synthetic pyrethroids, such as fly sprays and pet flea treatments.

Aoraki extension: DOC has extended the period for public submissions on the draft Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland Tai Poutini national park management plans.

Tahr hunting: DOC will provide opportunities for hunters to gain air access to certain areas for tahr hunting in early 2019.

Predator-free Mackenzie: A long-term programme will aim to remove predators from the 310,000 ha Te Manahuna Aoraki restoration project in the Mackenzie.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

The rise of sponges in Anthropocene reef ecosystems
James Bell, Victoria University of Wellington, Nicole Webster, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Attention economy: Facebook delivers traffic but no money for news media
Merja Myllylahti, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand politics: how political donations could be reformed to reduce potential influence
Simon Chapple, Victoria University of Wellington

From lascars to skilled migrants: Indian diaspora in New Zealand and Australia
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Victoria University of Wellington, Jane Buckingham, University of Canterbury

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.

The Final Meltdown
Every year, at the end of summer, Niwa researchers take to the skies to undertake an annual survey of the Southern Alps’ snowline. New Zealand Geographic's Kennedy Warne tags along and reports back on the rapid changes in our highest peaks: could water quantity evoke the same emotional response among New Zealanders as water quality has in recent years?

Kiwi savers
In this two-part series, NZ Herald's Jamie Morton writes about conservation of kiwi and those on frontline trying to protect our taonga: part two here.

The Truth is Dead
In his most recent ‘The Side Eye’ comic, Toby Morris explores the ‘post-truth’ era, attempts to find common ground with a Flat Earther, and shares his thoughts about how we come to an understanding of the truth. 

Return of the lost birds
Since humans arrived in Aotearoa, we’ve lost nearly half of our native terrestrial bird species. In this New Zealand Geographic feature, Kate Evans talks to scientists learning more about these long-lost species through the remains and DNA they left behind.

The Myth of ‘Dumbing Down’
Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost busts the myth that experts have to 'dumb down' their content when talking to the public. Instead, he argues that it’s a problem with the expert refusing to address the audience’s needs, rather than a problem with the audience.

Also check-out a wrap-up of our favourite stories from the past month.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Why New Zealand needs alternatives to 1080

Andrea Byrom, director of the BioHeritage National Science challenge, outlines why we need alternatives to 1080 and what options the challenge is investigating.
Guest Work
The health impacts of the First World War for NZ: A Review

WWI had an impact on New Zealanders' health long after the armistice, according to a new review.
Public Health Expert
Is It Ethical for Nutrition Scientists to Accept Industry Money?

A number of studies suggest conflicts of interest are damaging nutrition science, but when money's tight, what's a researcher to do?
Guest Work
Cold-store snails, data for sale and NZ’s lost birds – our favourite science journalism from October

We've rounded up some of our favourite stories from the past month.

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Botany tour: 3 November, Wellington. Join curator Carlos Lehnebach for a behind-the-scenes tour of Te Papa's botany collection.
  • Innovating for resilience: 5-7 November, Wellington. The inaugural Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management Asia Pacific regional conference arrives in town.
  • Open knowledge vs fake news: 6 November, Wellington. A panel of NZ and international experts will discuss how knowledge is generated and spread and how it affects our politics and lives.
  • The urban frontier: 5 November, Tauranga. Bruce Clarkson will discuss whether towns and cities could be a solution to the biodiversity decline.
  • Pre-term brain health: 7 November, Auckland. Steven Miller will talk about developments in protecting brain health in pre-term babies.
  • Harnessing Big Data: 8 November, Christchurch. Jakki Mohr will address challenges organisations face in harnessing the power of big data.
  • Men's health: 8 November, Dunedin. Fiona Doolan-Noble will talk about the growing burden of obesity among Kiwi men.
  • Urban trees: 10 November, Dunedin. Mark Roberts will look at the reality of pruning practices, urban ecology and tree risk.
  • NZAS conference: 15 November, Auckland. The NZ Association of Scientists conference will include talks from chief scientist Juliet Gerrard and University of Waikato's Tahu Kukutai.

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