Issue 492, 05 Oct 2018


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New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: Sulawesi quake and tsunami 

Expert Reaction: Gene editing in primary industries

Expert Reaction: River water quality report​

Reflections on Science:  What on earth drives someone to put up an anti-vaccination billboard? – Nikki Turner​

In The News: What makes quakes jump faults?

In the News: Gene editing in primary industries

New from the SMC global network

Should we use GE in plants?

A new discussion paper evaluates the potential uses and risks of gene editing for New Zealand’s primary industries.

New Zealand has historically had a conservative approach to gene editing, but embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk, a new Royal Society Te Apārangi paper says.

This discussion paper – the third in a series from the Society's Gene Editing in Aotearoa project – states gene editing could bring a range of benefits for our agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, mānuka, ryegrass, wilding pines, and dairy cows. 

Panel member Dr Phil Wilcox, a statistician from the University of Otago told Newstalk ZB's Kate Hawkesby "the whole point of this exercise was to... help inform public decision making about whether or not we should be using these technologies, and under what circumstances". 

The scientists involved acknowledge that many members of the public are wary of genetic modification and Dr Tony Conner, science group leader at AgResearch, told Stuff: "The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favour of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm."

The Society is seeking public feedback on the paper and holding three workshops around the country this month to discuss the findings. 

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the report.

Quoted: Youtube

♫ "We schemed a scheme in times gone by,

"When hopes were high and the climate worth saving." ♫

Motu Economic and Public Policy Research policy fellow Catherine Leining sings a musical tribute to the first decade of NZ's Emissions Trading Scheme 

Sulawesi struck by tsunami

On Friday evening, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Soon after, a five-metre high tsunami swept into the nearby city of Palu.

Early estimates suggested the quake and resulting tsunami killed at least 800 people and displaced more than 50,000, but by Thursday, the death toll had risen to at least 1,400 and as many as 1.6 million people affected.

The earthquake cut power to the town, limiting the local authority's ability to broadcast alerts, but after the mainshock on Friday night, a 0.5-3.0m tsunami alert was issued for the Makassar Strait (which separates Sulawesi from Indonesian Borneo) and a 0.5m alert for Palu. This alert was called off within an hour, but later a localised tsunami with waves 5-6m high swept into the city of Palu.

GNS Science seismologist John Ristau told Stuff that the type of earthquake (strike-slip) and the magnitude (M7.5) weren’t usually associated with causing tsunamis. While the exact source of the tsunami remains unknown, Dr Jose Borrero, Director eCoast Marine Consulting, told Stuff it was likely "some sort of submarine landslide, or a big cliff collapse, or just localised subsidence from the earthquake" may be to blame.

He told the SMC that the wave height was so much higher than expected because "Palu is located at the head of a long skinny bay, so any wave that is forced up the bay will be strongly amplified at the head of the bay."  

Local researchers were in Palu as recently as March this year running earthquake resilience workshops on behalf of StIRRRD (Strengthened Indonesian Resilience – Reducing Risk from Disasters). Dr Michele Daly from GNS Science wrote on Sciblogs: "In the 7 years the StIRRRD team have been working with Palu, and more recently Donggala, the districts have been making steady progress in improving their resilience." However, she says "building resilience requires a sustained effort over generations" and that the devastating quake and tsunami will set these communities back significantly.

New approach to earthquake forecasting – study

In future, we might have more warning of such events, as a study published on Tuesday by Victoria University of Wellington Associate Professor Simon Lamb suggests a novel earthquake forecasting approach. Based on 20 years of data leading up to the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, the researchers say in most cases, earthquakes are triggered by quakes on other faults, as each quake releases stress from one spot, but puts more strain somewhere else.

Lamb wrote on The Conversation: “the Herculean task of identifying every fault and its past earthquake history may be of only limited use. In fact, it is becoming clear that earthquake ruptures on individual faults are far from regular. Big faults may never rupture in one go, but bit by bit together with many other faults.”

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the disaster.

State of snails in our rivers

A river quality report and interactive from Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) has measured the health of our rivers through data on 10-year trends from sites around the country.

The report assesses river water based on nine quality indicators and looks at the health of macroinvertebrates (snails, worms and insects) for the first time, concluding they may be struggling to thrive at some sites.

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown from the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management told the SMC the results won’t come as a surprise to most New Zealanders, with human activities reducing the quality of around one-third of our monitored waterways.

The report indicates that our rivers are showing signs of improvement with respect to nitrogen levels, turbidity and E.coli, but as Webster-Brown says, these are just "physical and chemical parameters which have the potential to affect ecosystems", and the new macroinvertebrate indicator allows us to measure the "direct response of those ecosystems to changing water quality". 

These critters are a good yardstick for how the rivers are doing over time outside the monthly water quality measurements. Cawthron Institute’s Rob Holmes told Newsroom: “they are like a black box recorder for waterways,” as some thrive in polluted conditions, and others disappear rapidly.

Victoria University's Dr Mike Joy told RNZ the snapshot water samples taken by Councils can give the impression things are improving, "because the amount of nitrate is going down in the water, but what you haven't accounted for is the amount of algae that has gone up in the water... and that's why the invertebrates are telling the true story that the reduction in nitrates aren't showing".

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the report.

Policy news & developments

Tahr control: The longstanding Himalayan Tahr Control Plan sets an upper limit of 10,000 animals. DOC estimates there are currently more than 35,000 animals, which Eugenie Sage says confirms the need for increased control.

Wool working group: Twenty wool producers, processors and other industry representatives met last week for the first time.

R&D tax credit: The design of the research and development (R&D) tax incentive has been finalised after consultation.

PF Dunedin: The South Island’s first large-scale predator-free project in Dunedin launched on Wednesday.

Sulawesi aid: A Defence Force C-130 Hercules plane, left for Indonesia on Wednesday laden with emergency relief supplies including generators, water containers, and tarpaulins.

Zero Carbon feedback: Over 15,000 New Zealanders submitted feedback on the Bill aiming to reduce our carbon emissions. Over 90 per cent were in favour of net zero targets for all greenhouse gases, including methane.

Tokelau weather station: Metservice and MCDEM are building a weather station on Tokelau to help the island build its knowledge of and resilience to climate change.

Wellington SAVVY in November

The Science Media Centre's acclaimed two-day workshop returns to Wellington in November.

Our flagship media training course returns to Wellington for our fourth and final two-day Science Media SAVVY for the year.

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 29 October.


This week on the NZ Conversation.

Hazardous drinking: research finds that 40% of people over 50 drink too much
Andy Towers, Massey University​

Speaking out about sexual violence on social media may not challenge gendered power relations
Carol Harrington, Victoria University of Wellington​

Women’s surfing riding wave towards gender equity
Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton, University of Waikato​

Satellite measurements of slow ground movements may provide a better tool for earthquake forecasting
Simon Lamb, 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.

One Wikipedia Page Is a Metaphor for the Nobel Prize’s Record With Women
Donna Strickland is only the third woman in history to win the award in physics—and her research probably deserved attention a lot sooner, writes Marina Koren on The Atlantic. The Wikimedia Foundation has responded with a breakdown of what happened with Strickland's article.

DATA FOR SALE: The value of our digital lives
Katie Kenny's deep dive into what data internet giant collect on us, and what they do with it was made possible by the Aotearoa Science Journalism Fund.

Foxes in charge of the meth house
In a two-part inquiry for Newsroom, Branko Marcetic investigates the people running the flawed meth testing regimes. Part 2, Meth-testing’s ‘wild west’, can be found here

Drug Deals
Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold from Stuff circuit investigate the secret deals behind the multi-million dollar global drug market, and what, if anything, Pharmac can do about it.

Questions raised over whether Kiwi surgeons have enough experience and skill for transvaginal mesh implants
Surgical mesh procedures have left hundreds of Kiwi women suffering life-altering pain and disability. Stuff's Cate Broughton looks into whether surgeon competency could play a role.

In case you missed it, here's a wrap-up of what we've been reading for the past month.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Palu and Donggala: working towards resiliency

Michele Daly from GNS Science writes about the devastating M7.5 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Indonesia this week. Her team has been working in the affected areas for the past seven years and they held a resiliency workshop in Palu this March.
Guest Work
Vaccines and risk on Auckland motorway billboard

Grant Jacobs responds to the billboard that popped up on South Auckland motorway on Monday encouraging motorists to question the safety of vaccines
Code for life
Five dollar prize

Do you get your kids to work for jobs around the house? How much is their time worth? Eric Crampton takes it to the next level with 'sealed bid tendering' for the household chores.  
The Dismal Science
Using images to misinform

The internet can be a wretched hive of wrongness and misinformation, writes Alison Campbell. When it comes to those against 1080, they clearly believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Monitoring environmental health: 8 October, Dunedin. Can microbial DNA be used as a sensitive and reliable indicator of changing environmental conditions?
  • Haunted by an astronomical ghost: 8 October, Dunedin. Neville Blampied will discuss the reliance of psychologists on certain statistical tests that are haunted by old ideas.
  • Detecting cardiovascular disease: 8 October, Auckland. Greg Jones' inaugural professorial lecture will discuss his work looking for markers to aid in the detecting of cardiovascular disease.
  • Biodiversity on Earth: 9 October, Auckland. Mark Costello will discuss global databases which underpin the new field of “biodiversity informatics”.
  • Dementia and delirium: 10 October, Auckland. Dr Aileen Collier will report on her research exploring care for older people experiencing dementia and delirium.
  • CRISPR - Utopian or Dystopian? 10 October, Auckland. A panel will discuss the pros and cons of gene editing tool CRISPR.
  • Implicit bias: 10 October, Auckland. Carla Houkamau will separate fact from fiction in a discussion about implicit bias.
  • Ageing and falling: 11 October, Wellington. Angela Curl will discuss research on the mobility experiences of older adults in urban environments, particularly those who have fallen over.
  • 'Alternative' media: 11 October, Christchurch. Linda Jean Kenix will discuss whether 'alternative' media means anything new.
  • The Human Element: 11 October, Wellington. A premiere and Q&A with one of the producers of the film The Human Element that explores the impact of climate change on everyday people.
  • Dawn of gravitational waves: 12 October, Christchurch. Paul Groot will present the Beatrice Hill Tinsley lecture on the results so far from gravitational waves research and new possibilities.

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