Issue 513, 15 Mar 2019


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Expert Reaction: Call for moratorium on human genome editing

Expert Reaction:  NZ suspends Boeing 737 MAX

In The News: Prime Minister awards $1m in prizes for science

Expert Q&A: Measles in Canterbury

New from the SMC global network

Student-led climate strikes

School students around the country took strike action today to send a message to politicians about the urgency of climate action.

Thousands of students showed up to events in Dunedin's George St, Christchurch's Cathedral Square, Auckland's Aotea Square and Wellington's Civic Square - where students marched to the grounds of Parliament.

In Wellington, Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw thanked the students for “taking a stand, for fighting for your future".

School Strike 4 Climate Action NZ stems from international youth movements to protest against climate change, initially led by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg who started protesting outside the Swedish parliament last August.

Shaw, who was sporting a black eye from yesterday's attack, said NZ needed legally binding targets to hold politicians to account - signalling the Zero Carbon Act will be passed this year.

Earlier in the week, more than 1560 researchers, academics and educators signed an open letter supporting the school strike and calling on the Government to enact urgent measures to reduce emissions.

"Creating a future that does not rely on fossil fuels is going to take bravery and imagination and we are heartened by what we are seeing from young people," the letter stated. 

One signatory, University of Auckland psychology Professor Niki Harré, labelled the global movement humbling, "because we, as adults, know that our generation has let our young people down". 

The SMC gathered expert comment on the strike. 

Quoted: Stuff

"Newton said: 'If I can see further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' We have to acknowledge that some of the people we are standing on were bloody awful."

University of Auckland historian Kate Hannah on problematic idols.

Time for a moratorium?

A temporary hiatus should be placed on all clinical uses of human germline editing, a group of international scientists say.

In a comment published in Nature, the group of scientists and ethicists from seven countries - including New Zealand - suggested a moratorium of five years would allow for moral, ethical, scientific and medical issues to be ironed out. 

Following that, the researchers say there should be an international governance framework to guide any future use. 

The call follows the actions of Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who reportedly used gene editing to produce two babies last year - a move which lead to widespread condemnation. 

University of Otago's Professor Jing-Bao Nie, who was a co-author on the comment piece, said: "In many ways, He's human experimentation constitutes one of the fruits of his personal ambition, nourished and directly supported by China's authoritarian pursuit for a nation strong in science and technology."

Genomics Aoateroa Director Professor Peter Dearden supported the call, but added a moratorium may not be sufficient to stop scientists like Dr He.

"I think the question we really need to ask is, 'How did we get in the position where a scientist believes that they can just ignore all the ethical and legal implications of their work and go ahead and do it?'"

University of Auckland senior lecturer Hilary Sheppard told Newstalk ZB the move would send a clear message about the need for ethical research.

"We are not asking for inhibition of any type of research, just not allowing it to get to implantation stage."

The proposed moratorium would not hamper research or editing non-germline cells, the Nature piece says.

Global standards for governance and oversight of human genome editing are set to be discussed next week at the World Health Organization in Geneva, when a new expert advisory committee meets for the first time. 

The SMC gathered expert comment on the suggested moratorium.

PM's science prize winners

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern awarded five prizes totalling $1m to celebrate current scientists and encourage emerging ones. 

The ESR team that created the forensic software STRmix™, which helps police solve crimes by differentiating DNA from multiple people at a crime scene, was awarded the premier $500,000 Prime Minister’s Science Prize on Tuesday night.

ESR senior scientist Dr Jo-Anne Bright told Newshub that before the software was invented “there was a lot of wasted DNA evidence”, as forensic evidence containing mixed DNA could not be used in court. Pioneered in New Zealand, the software is now used in 60 laboratories around the world.

Climate scientist Prof James Renwick from Victoria University of Wellington won the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize for his relentless efforts to communicate climate change science in the media.

Prof Renwick told the NZ Herald: “The more opportunities people have to understand what is going on the better, as it is only when enough of us demand action that we are going to get it.”

Get Science Media SAVVY

Today is the last chance to apply for our April two-day media training workshop in Auckland.

These highly-acclaimed workshops offer researchers first-hand insight into the workings of news and social media, as well as hands-on, practical exercises to improve communication. 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.

Policy news & developments

Measles update: Cantabrians aged between 12 months and 28 years, who have never been vaccinated, are being given first priority for MMR vaccinations. As of Thursday, there were 28 confirmed cases of measles confirmed in Canterbury, two cases in Dunedin and two isolated cases in Auckland.

$1m for fire recovery: The money will be made available through the Lottery Grants Board to the Tasman Mayoral Disaster Relief Fund.

Organ donation changes: A new bill will see responsibilities for organ donation to shift from Organ Donation New Zealand to the New Zealand Blood Service. 

Pike River Mine re-entry: The scheduled date to commence re-entering and recovering the access tunnel to the drift will be 3 May.

Drought support: The medium-scale event classification for the Tasman drought has been extended to cover Marlborough and Buller as well as Nelson.

National park grows: 64,400 hectares of conservation land in the Mokihinui River catchment on the West Coast including 15 km of riverbed, has been added to Kahurangi National Park.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

How recognising Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse might help shift Catholic culture
David Tombs, University of Otago

Careful how you treat today’s AI: it might take revenge in the future
Nicholas Agar, Victoria University of Wellington

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.

Road to Recovery
Their numbers are rising, but they're not the easiest birds to babysit. Dave Hansford examines the love triangles, fibrous dung and survival instincts of Kahurangi National Park's takahē for New Zealand Geographic.

Growing Demand - NZ's budding cannabis businesses
With a binding referendum on whether to legalise for personal use set for 2020, RNZ Insight takes a look at what some of the promises, pitfalls and potential might be for a 'cannabusiness' sector in NZ.

Anyone who's requested information under the Official Information Act will know it isn't always the straight-forward exchange it should be. As the government considers a review of the 39-year-old Act, this Stuff series attempts to demystify the foggy path to free information.

Grave Matters
Stephanie Chamberlin looks at what we've lost through fear of death and talks to those trying to bring the personality and patience that once surrounded death and grief back to the community.

Why privacy scandals don’t scare us off social media​
Facebook knows who we message, the calls we make and the contacts in our phones, so why aren't we all closing our accounts? Max Towle investigates.​

Drug Companies and Doctors Battle Over the Future of Fecal Transplants
As drug companies seek to capitalise on the wonders of human poo, doctors are concerned about higher prices, new regulation and patients trying some home DIY cures, Kayana Szymczak writes for The New York Times.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Open by design, not default

Siouxsie Wiles says open science should be intentional and ordered, not defined by slapping an open licence on what scientists normally do behind the lab doors. 
Infectious Thoughts
Pleading for accuracy in trial reporting

After a raft of confusing headlines about a clinical trial in JAMA on nutritional supplements and depression, Professor Julia Rucklidge asks scientists and the media to work together to prevent inherent biases misrepresenting data.
Guest Work
The MMR Myth: How should we report it?

It's personally offensive that the malicious myth about the MMR vaccine and autism still exists, but how do we best engage with people without alienating them, Sarah-Jane O'Connor writes. 
Context is best – a reflection on last week’s breast vs bottle uproar

Victoria University of Wellington's Dr Eva Neely says parents don’t need another book to placate us about whether our choice is acceptable, they need more support.  
Guest Work

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Brain awareness month: This month there are 17 brain-related events across New Zealand. Next week has weekday events in AucklandDunedinNapier and Christchurch, as well as a weekend Brain Day at the Centre for Brain Research.

  • Compassion in healthcare: March 16-17, Auckland. This inaugural conference brings together experts in compassionate care, from scientists to clinicians, to inspire, teach and share the practices of compassion in clinical care.
  • Science in the news: March 18, Wellington. SMC director Dacia Herbulock explores the ways in which science and related issues are covered in the New Zealand media and how scientists' actions influence this.
  • How Wiki works: March 19, Palmerston North. New Zealand Wikipedian at Large, Dr Mike Dickison, presents the first of two talks on the benefits of engaging with Wikipedia.
  • Politics of hate: March 19, Wellington. Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley asks: what are the politics behind the rise in online hate speech? And what is the impact on those targeted? 
  • Carbon zero goals: March 19, Auckland Geosystem science Professor Myles Allen tackles the opportunities and challenges of New Zealand's proposed Zero Carbon Act. 
  • Artful climate science: March 19, Palmerston North. Join a mix of artists and climate experts to learn the latest climate science and discover creative projects designed to inspire action. 
  • Data and migration: March 20, Dunedin. Dr Ruth De Souza explores how data is reshaping migration policies globally and how this transforms our understanding of migrant and refugee health and wellbeing.
  • UN-fit for purpose?: March 20, Auckland. Professor Ramesh Thakur hosts a public lectures asking: Is the United Nations Security Council fit for purpose in addressing 21st century security threats?
  • Helen Clark Foundation launch: March 21, Auckland. People are invited to register to attend an official launch reception for the new public policy think tank.
  • Clean water: March 22, Palmerston North. On World Water Day, this year’s theme, ‘Leaving no one behind’, adapts the central promise that, in sustainable development, everyone should benefit. 

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