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SMC Heads-Up: TIN 100, Marsden Grants & Italian quake trial

Issue 204 26 October - 1 November

In This Issue
TIN 100
Marsden Grants
L'Aquila Trial
Smoking Apps
New from the SMC
Sciblogs highlights
Research highlights
Policy News
Sci-tech events

Modest growth from hi-tech sector
New Zealand's hi-tech sector battled tough economic conditions in key markets and the impact of a strong Kiwi dollar to increase overall revenue by $154 million in the last year.

The TIN100 report, which benchmarks the 100 largest companies in a sector spanning appliances and healthcare to software and electronics, was launched in Auckland last night, by the Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce.
The report reveals a snapshot of an industry with a more diverse range of companies than ever before and employing more skilled workers. However, international growth was dominated by opportunities in Australia and Asia as export revenue from the key North American and European markets fell.
"There are larger companies in record numbers." said TIN100 report publisher, Greg Shanahan, of the TIN100 players.
"An all-time high of 34 with revenues over $50 million and a record number of 18 with revenues of over $100 million, up by 4 and 2 respectively."
The strongest growth came from the minor league TIN100 players, who have annual revenue of $20 million or less.
Joyce said finding skilled staff in appropriate numbers remained a big challenge to the sector, with the Government having this year increased funding of tertiary-level science and engineering courses to produce more graduates in these areas. He said the government may consider further increasing funding, particularly in the engineering space.
TIN100 companies were bought in record numbers this year, with foreign companies picking up some of our most promising tech companies, something Shanahan put down to "a growing level of founder and investor fatigue after several tough years of business conditions".
TIN100 headline results:
- TIN100 revenue up 2.2% to $7.3 billion
- Export revenue up 2.3% to $5.2 billion
- TIN100 companies increased staff numbers by 5% to 28,800
- Sales into Australia grew 7%, while North America sales fell 5% and European sales fell 3.5%

TIN100 top 10

$55 million in grants carved up
Every year the announcement of the Marsden Fund winners generates a buzz of media coverage - and this year is no exception.

Among the headline-generating projects to be funded in this years round of grants is research which could support the development of invisibility devices, analysis of how best generate electricity from tidal energy and investigations into how the changing atmosphere could affect New Zealand weather.

Announced yesterday, a total of 86 research projects have been allocated $54.6 million of funding in this year's Marsden Fund grants.

A full list of the grants and their recipients is available here.

The Marsden fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the government, is the hallmark of excellence in research.

As described on the Royal Society website: "Marsden Fund research benefits society as a whole by contributing to the development of researchers with knowledge, skills and ideas. The research is not subject to government's socio-economic priorities, but is investigator initiated. The Fund supports research excellence in science, engineering and maths, social sciences and the humanities."

Of the 1113 preliminary proposals received, 229 were asked to submit a full proposal with 86 ultimately funded, giving a success rate of 7.7%. All of the funded proposals are for three years.

Marsden Fund Council chairperson Professor Juliet Gerrard was impressed at the quality of the applicants and the proposals.

"Marsden lets our brightest investigators work on their best ideas, without worrying about short term priorities. Many of these ideas are high risk, but potentially very high gain," she said.

"In the long term, we expect some of these projects to make a big difference to New Zealand, in terms of economic growth, social issues, and a wider understanding of who we are as New Zealanders."

Read a round up coverage on the Science Media Centre website.
L'Aquila verdict spurs reaction
The guilty verdict handed down to six Italian semiologists charged with manslaughter - for providing misleading information ahead of a deadly earthquake - highlights the critical role science communication must play in informing the wider public.
On Monday night (NZ time) six Italian scientists and a government official were found guilty of manslaughter for providing "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" advice to the public ahead of the 2009 earthquake which struck the city of L'Aquila, killing 309 people. All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee and were sentenced to six years in prison and barred from holding official positions in the future.

It is likely that the defendants will appeal the sentence.

Decision shakes up scientists
In September last year, several New Zealand scientists commented on the case in its early stages and signed a letter in support of the Italian scientists.Now, the UK and Australian SMCs have collected fresh commentary from scientists (available here) and New Zealand scientists have been quick to respond to local media (see a roundup here and also a statement from GNS Science).

In particular Mark Quigley, Senior Lecturer in tectonics and geomorphology at the University of Canterbury, has written extensive commentary articles, which ran in The Press and New Zealand Herald newspapers, stressing the importance of accurately conveying risks and probabilities to the public.

Italian-born quake engineer Stefano Pampanin, who also lectures at Canterbury University, told the Press he was ''disappointed and frustrated'' to hear of the court's verdict.

''If you were asking these questions here [in New Zealand], people would almost laugh at you.''

Not all commentators were as quick to condemn the ruling. Northland-based Dr Chris Buckley, formerly of California State University's seismic laboratory, backed the verdict, saying to Radio NZ, "To my mind, they made a big mistake: claiming they could use the information available and say there would be no earthquake."

There has also been extensive commentary provided by scientists writing on the website, which has been collated in the 'SciBlogs highlights' section below.
On the science radar...
Talking whales, men challenge multitasking stereotype changing the colour of gold, the Archer Fish's water 'arrows' and busting the Ghostbusters.
Smoking? There's an app for that
Whether you're with Android or Apple, big tobacco is trying to sneak its influence onto your phone via apps, according to a new study.

Australian public health researchers have reviewed two of the largest smartphone app stores (Apple and Android Market; both used extensively by NZ smartphone users) for the availability of English language pro-smoking apps.

The researchers found 107 pro-smoking apps. Some contained explicit images of cigarette brands; others images that resembled existing brands. Some allowed the user to simulate smoking.

Their findings were published this week in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control.

"Pro-smoking content, including explicit cigarette brand images, is promoted in smartphone apps, which are reaching millions of users, including teenagers and children. App stores need to explore ways of regulating this content," say the authors.

And they add: "App stores have a moral (and arguably) a legal responsibility to ensure they have the infrastructure to comply with WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and other laws restricting advertising of tobacco to minors."

Read more coverage from TVNZ and the ODT (via AAP)

Quoted: The Press

"The consequences of this indictment on the scientific community remain to be seen, but a clear lesson is that the public needs to be made aware of 'low-probability, high-consequence' events regardless of how unpopular and/or distressing these sentiments might be.

"That said, it takes a ton of courage for scientists to speak openly about low probability scenarios, particularly if these comments are used to accuse scientists of scare-mongering, and/or have detrimental impacts on earthquake recovery, such as decreasing investor and re-insurer confidence and increasing stress levels of local residents."
Dr Mark Quigley, University of Canterbury, on the manslaughter charges against L'Aquila semiologists in Italy

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

International reaction to quake trial: Read commentary from around the globe following the guilty verdict for scientists and officials in post-quake L'Aquila, Italy.

In the news:

Marsden Fund: The Royal Society of New Zealand has announced this year's recipients of Marsden Fund research grants.

DNA Diversity: Researchers have sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from several human samples extracted from the Wairau Bar burial site, shedding light on the ancestry of the first New Zealanders.
Biofuel futures: NZ Herald feature writer Chris Barton looks at the scientific efforts underway in New Zealand to yield biofuel from forestry.

L'Aquila reaction: The manslaughter conviction of six Italian scientists and a government official for underestimating the risks of an earthquake has sparked a range of reactions from experts in the New Zealand media.

Reflections on Science:

More L'Aquila: Hear from the experts regarding the L'Aquila quake trial in an opinion piece from Dr Mark Quigley and a statement from GNS Science.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

L'Aquila verdict roundup - Several SciBloggers have covered the manslaughter conviction of seismologists in L'Aquila. Check out the reaction from Physics Stop, Molecular Matters, Griffins Gadgets, Code for Life & Kidney Punch.

Dopey Physics: can bio-mechanics help point the finger at Armstrong? - Guest Blogger Dr Paul Behrens highlights how physics can uncover a disgraced cyclist's 'enhanced performance'.
Guest Work

Marsden 2012: Success rate continues to fall - Shaun Hendy crunches the numbers on the success and significance of the Marsden research grants.
A Measure of Science

Let's accept now that the ATI will find it very difficult to kick off by February next year - The government's new tech institute might have a few stumbling blocks, writes Peter Kerr.

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

DNA diversity in early New Zealanders: University of Otago researchers have uncovered the complete mitochondrial genome sequences from the remains of ancient Polynesian voyagers excavated from the Wairau Bar on the northeast coast of the South Island, revealing significant genetic diversity within what is believed to be the founding population of New Zealand. The data could shed light on the Pacific origins of the first New Zealanders.

String theory: For over 400 years it has been a mystery how birds spontaneously solve the 'string pulling problem'. A select number of clever bird species (including Kea) are able to rapidly gain access to food hung on the end of a long string by repeatedly pulling and then stepping on the string. New University of Auckland research suggests that in crows such problem solving is not created by the birds first solving the problem in their heads, but actually done 'on the fly' whilst pulling the string.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

The smoking app: A review of the Apple and Android smartphone app markets has revealed that there are numerous 'Pro-smoking' apps available. Pro Smoking was defined as any app that explicitly provided information about brands of tobacco, where to buy products, images of brands and cigarettes, and any trigger cues for smoking. 107 such apps were identified. "Pro-smoking content, including explicit cigarette brand images, is promoted in smartphone apps, which are reaching millions of users, including teenagers and children" say the Australian authors.
Tobacco Control

Microbes aid moss survival: Bioinformatic analyses suggest that moss, one of the first plants to grow on land, was able to survive by 'stealing' genes from microorganisms. Researchers found evidence of 'horizontal gene transfer' of genes from bacteria, fungi or viruses. Although it is unclear how the transfer occurred, the authors hypothesise that intense UV radiation on land challenged early plants as they first emerged from the sea, and the plants thrived by obtaining useful genes from microorganisms.
Nature Communications

Bipedal ancestor a tree climber: An analysis of the shoulder bones of Australopithecus afarensis suggests that these early human ancestors, although bipedal, were also very active climbers. Apparently, tree-climbing continued to be important for this group of hominins, which includes the famed Lucy, even though they walked upright. These findings indicate that the overhead use of upper limbs for climbing and balancing in trees remained an important part of the A. afarensis survival strategy.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Reducing bird catch: MPI and DoC are seeking feedback on the draft of a new National Plan of Action to reduce the incidental catch of seabirds in New Zealand fisheries.

PCE down on ETS Bill: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has labelled failure to fix the ETS bill, a 'disappointing and costly decision' ahead of its third reading.

PCE annual report: The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has also released its latest annual report.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Wellington Rocks! Earthquake briefings for Wellington residents - a joint project from GNS Science and the Wellington City Council - At various locations throughout Wellington, September - October.
GoTrace - Food forensics conference - 31 October, Napier.
Brain Matters - Neurological Foundation's 40th anniversary public event - 30 October, Auckland; 31 October, Dunedin.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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