SMC Heads Up
SMC Heads Up
Issue 185- June 8-14
Transit of Venus Forum
The future of science in New Zealand was the focus of a forum in Gisborne this week attended by scientists, policy makers, journalists, educators, business people and community leaders
The Transit of Venus Forum project was spearheaded by Prof Sir Paul Callaghan, who sadly passed away in March this year. His vision for a high level forum around the astronomical event - which is not due to occur again until 2117 - aimed to explore science's role in New Zealand's future prosperity.
On Wednesday delegates observed the Transit of Venus at Tolaga
Bay, the location where Captain James Cook first landed in
New Zealand, having travelled Tahiti in 1769 to observe the
Transit for the Royal Society of London. The remote location
was one of the few in the country where the weather
cooperated long enough to provide a clear view of the rare
The following two days comprised of a number of forum panel sessions exploring how science could engage with issues as diverse as education and personal growth, the Maori economy and environmental restoration.
You can read coverage of the event from Rebecca Priestly, Toby Manhire and Peter Griffin on the Listener website.
At the closing of the final session this afternoon, titled 'What do we need to do to work towards the future we want?', Professor Sir Peter Gluckman concluded:
"Connectedness and conversation are at
the heart of this challenge"
On the science radar...
HRC: Funding the health
Does unpasteurised milk make children less prone to allergies? How do Maori ethics relate to biobanking and genomic research? What are the health consequences of being born prematurely?
These are just a few of the important questions being addressed by new projects funded through the Health Research Council.
This week the Health Research Council (HRC) announced the recipients of funding from the latest funding round. A grand total of $65.2 million worth of funding for 51 studies was allocated to researchers from universities, research institutes and District Health Boards.
The HRC is the Crown agency responsible for administering the New Zealand Government's investment in health research.
Projects funded include
• Cardiovascular disease and cancer, New Zealand's top killers.
• Tackling obesity and diabetes in New Zealand.
• Addressing infectious diseases.
• The impact of cell phone use on children.
• Life-long consequences of restricted growth in the womb or premature birth.
• Solar ventilation systems in classrooms.
A full list of funded projects can found on the HRC website and a round up of media coverage is available on the SMC website.
Life on Mars? Check the methane
New research from US and Kiwi scientists analysing the sources of the gas methane could provide clues to the existence of life on Mars.
The study, published this week in the journal PNAS, revealed that the amount of hydrogen included in methane gas can act as indicator of the presence of life.
Dr Chris Oze, from the University of Canterbury, and colleagues ran several experiments to identify the differences between methane produced from living and non-living sources. The researchers were able to show that gas produced by the metamorphisis of rocks in in the Earth's crust has a higher methane to hydrogen ratio than gas produced by organisms such as bacteria.
The study has important implications in determining if there is life on Mars. Large methane vents on the planet's surface could be a sign of life on the red planet - now Dr Oze's research provides a way to find out.
"This is a significant finding that demonstrates that the hydrogen to methane ratio may be used to evaluate if life is present," Dr Oze explained to ABC Science earlier this week.
"Mars has all the same components that we included in this study. If life is similar on Mars to Earth, then we can use the ratio of hydrogen to methane in the atmosphere to peel back the surface of the planet and see whether there is life under there."
Quoted: Dominion Post
"We could do an awful lot more for this country if we just used the talents of our people better and engaged people more with what the scientific community can do for them."
Sir Prof Peter
Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor
New from the SMC
Exercise no help for depression? Exercise does not improve depression treatment outcomes, according to new research. However independent experts are divided over the findings.
In the News:
HRC funds the health of NZ: Read media coverage of the studies being
supported in the latest funding from the Health Research
Reflections on Science:
Transit of Venus: Follow the goings on at the Transit of Venus Forum in Gisborne with articles from Peter Griffin and Toby Manhire on the Listener Website, and from Sir Peter Gluckman and reporter Marty Sharpe in the Dominion Post.
Some of the highlights from this week's posts:
Tapping into market knowledge....down at
your local library! There's more than just books at the
library, writes Peter Kerr as he relates the wealth of
resources he has uncovered.
Is Having Children a Right or a
Responsibility? Michael Edmonds wades into the political
and ethical quagmire raised by recent announcements
Should we be drinking 2 litres of water a
day? Amanda Johnson notes a recent editorial pouring
cold water on the claims of the bottled water
Citizen science: How deep is the snow at
your place? Daniel Collins and Ross Wood call on
crowdsourcing as a source of data on the recent dumping of
white stuff in the South Island.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Life on Mars: A team of
researchers -- including one from Christchurch -- has
figured out how to tell whether methane on
geologically-active planets comes from living or non-living
sources. This could help determine if life exists on planets
like Mars, where scientists have reported a seasonal methane
plume. Early indications are that this methane may not have
a biological origin - but the researchers say that further
monitoring of Martian gases may tell us whether life is
present and active beneath the planet's surface.
Picky eaters: New Zealand
researchers have shown African jumping spiders, also known
as vampire spiders, choose to feed on female mosquitoes -
those most likely to be engorged with blood. New work using
"Frankenstein hybrids" cobbled together from parts of
different mosquitoes shows the spiders identify the female
mosquitoes by miniscule differences in their antennae - but
scientists are still puzzled by the brain processes
Journal of Experimental Biology
vitamin benfits: A natural ingredient found in milk can
protect against obesity even as mice continue to enjoy diets
that are high in fat. Swiss researchers say that mice that
take nicotinamide riboside in fairly high doses along with
their high-fat meals burn more fat and are protected from
obesity. They also become better runners with greater
endurance. Tests are now needed in humans to see if the
compound can be sold as a new kind of metabolism-boosting
bee-killing virus: Spread of the parasitic varroa mite
across Hawaiian honeybee hives has helped deformed wing
virus (DWV) to thrive in those hives. DWV -- which was
reported in NZ hives in the Waikato and Northland in 2008 --
can infect bees by itself, but the varroa acts as a host and
incubator, and transmits the virus directly into the bees'
circulation system. US researchers say the spread of varroa
has helped make DWV one of the most widely distributed and
contagious insect viruses on the planet.
Dinosaurs slimmed down:
Scientists using a new technique to estimate dinosaurs'
weight have found the massive creatures were substantially
lighter than thought. Using lasers to measure the volume of
living animals' skeletons, researchers calculated the
minimum amount of skin needed to wrap them, and applied
these same ratios to dinosaur bones. The results were
consistent across different animals, and the researchers
suggest they would apply to all dinosaur weight
Foetal DNA markers in
the blood: Sampling the blood of a pregnant woman about 18
weeks into the pregnancy, and taking a saliva sample from
the child's father can allow doctors to map the DNA of the
foetus. Research labs are now designing maternal blood tests
for major aberrations in the foetal genetic makeup as a
safer substitute for amniocentesis -- the more invasive
direct sampling of amniotic fluid surrounding the
foetus.which is currently used for pregnancy
Science Translational Medicine
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Organ donation: The Government is investing an extra $4 million over four years to encourage more organ donations, the Ministry of Health has announced.
Farming report: New Zealand farmers are using less land and less labour to produce a kilo of milk or meat than they were a decade ago, according to the latest data in a report from the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• Third International Starlight Conference
- 10-12 June, Tekapo.
• From start to steam - GNS Geothermal workshop - 11-14 June, Taupo.
• Innovation and growth conference - 11 June, Hamilton.
• Competing Indices of happiness: will the best one win? - a seminar presentation by Paul Frijters, University of Queensland - 12 June, Wellington.
• Wellbeing and Public Policy Conference - 13-15 June, Wellington
• Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand Annual Conference 2012 - 15-17 June, Carterton.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.