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SMC Heads-Up: Science funding paper, Xmas hours, food prices

Issue 211 14 - 20 December

In This Issue
Peer review paper

Xmas SMC hours

Food pricing

NZ health survey

New from the SMC

Sciblogs highlights

Research highlights

Policy News

Sci-tech events

Quick Links

SMC Alerts

Media Registration
More About Us
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Peer review - have we got it right?
What role should the peer review process play in deciding the type of science that receives public funding in New Zealand?

That's the fundamental question posed by Sir Peter Gluckman in a discussion paper released today and designed to generate ideas around how we can produce better outcomes for the country from the science funded by the tax payer.

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor has consulted his equivalent advisors around the world and some of New Zealand's top scientists in putting together the paper Which science to fund: time to review peer review?.

He points to international research showing the burden the peer review process puts on science as researchers devote time and resources to preparing grant applications the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Council and other contestable funds.

In the case of the Marsden Fund, which is administered by the Royal Society, the estimated costs are substantial.

"The best estimate puts the total cost at 20-35% of the fund size, some NZ$10- 20 million. The majority of the cost falls onto applicants. Estimates suggest that the time spent writing proposals represents over 80% of the total fund cost, with three-quarters of that spent on first stage proposals.

"International reviewers and panel- lists make up 10% of the total cost and this is a significant burden upon the small number of people who are called upon in these roles," the paper notes.

Some of the other issues considered:

- Does New Zealand focus too much in the peer-review process on ideas rather than the individuals and teams presenting them?
- To what extent should national priorities feed into proposal assessment criteria?
- Is quality or relevance more important is assessing research proposals?
- How does the science system, particularly in a small country, overcome the issue of panellist bias among those chosen to assess research proposals?
- What is the best way to assess interdisciplinary research?

In concluding the paper, Sir Peter notes:

"It is timely to have a more objective look at the process of funding decisions as this is the most important element in matching our research community to the changing shape of our innovation system."

The paper is available for download here and is accompanied by a blog post from Sir Peter.

Seasons greetings from the SMC team!

It has been a busy year for the Science Media Centre and we've enjoyed working with old friends in science and the media and welcoming newcomers to the fold. Thanks for your support in what has been another big news year.

SMC Christmas/New Year hours:

Dec 21st - closed from 2pm
Jan 9th - SMC re-opens

We'll be on hand to help with queries throughout the holiday period should breaking news require scientific input. Contact SMC manager Peter Griffin - (021 859 365 should you require assistance over the holiday break.

Merry Xmas and a safe and happy New Year!

Food pricing: cash for calories?
Taxing unhealthy food and subsidising fruit and vegetables could lead to better diets and improve overall population health, according to a study from New Zealand experts

In the study, published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the University of Auckland and the University if Otago, Wellington, investigated the association between food pricing strategies and food consumption and non-communicable diseases by analysing the results of published mathematical modeling studies of food pricing interventions.

While they found that pricing strategies could lead to beneficial dietary changes and potentially improve health, the extent of this effect was hard to determine - many of the studies were of low to moderate quality and provided uncertain and varying estimates of the impact of pricing on food consumption.

Based on the available data, the researchers estimated that a ten percent increase in the price of soft drinks lower consumption by one to 24 percent. On the other hand, taking a 'carrot' rather than 'stick' approach and lowering the price of fruit and vegetables by ten percent could likely increase consumption by between two and eight percent.

Lead researcher, Dr Helen Eyles from The University of Auckland, explained the wide range of results, "this variation can be due a number of things such as the different tax rates, how people respond and the social role of food in different countries".

She also noted that taxes and subsidies had a great effect on lower soci-economic groups, suggesting that food pricing strategies also have the potential to reduce inequalities.

"This opens up the debate for all New Zealanders. We tax tobacco and alcohol, should we now be considering taxing or subsidising foods based on whether or not they are healthy?"

More info on the study and a video of Dr Eyles describing the research can be found here.

Independent experts contacted by the Science Media Centre generally agreed with the authors.

Prof Elaine Rush, AUT University, commented:

"Taxes on soft drinks and foods high in saturated fats and subsidies for fruit and vegetables could lead to beneficial dietary changes and potentially improve health but we do not know how much this will change food choice and whether the changes will be associated with an improvement in the nutritional quality of the diet. "

Economist Dr Eric Crampton, University of Canterbury, was more sceptical, saying:

"Taxes and subsidies to encourage healthy eating are notoriously difficult to administer in the real world. They're the kind of thing that sounds simple, but wind up being a bit of a compliance nightmare."

You can read more commentary collected by the SMC and round up of media coverage on the SMC website.
On the science radar...
Honey bee raspberries, HIV vs leukaemia, very old cheese, eyes in the back of your head, mummified gut bacteria, and a spoonful of sugar...
Health survey a check up for NZ
The latest National Health Survey has provided a wealth of data on how we are doing as a country in terms of health and well being. While there are some health improvements, there are also areas for concern.

The survey results, released this week, are based on data collected from 12,000 adults and 4000 children and include information about general health, smoking, nutrition, access to health care and oral health,

Health improvements identified in the survey include less New Zealander's smoking daily, less psychological distress, fewer people unable to get medical appointment within 24 hours and higher vegetable intakes.

However the survey also shows that diabetes and obesity are areas of concern. Obesity rates have continued to increase over the past 15 years, from 19% in 1997 to 28% in 2011/12. Based on the survey data, it is estimated that there one million obese Kiwis.

The survey also found that there had been a substantial jump in obesity incidence among younger people; in the 15-24 year-old demographic the obesity rate has increased from 14% to 20% in the last 5 years.
More information and key findings from the survey can be found here.

In response to the latest survey data, Professor Tony Blakely from the University of Otago , Wellington, has called for action on child obesity.

"I'm used to researching inequalities in health in New Zealand," he said in a media release, "but I'm shocked by the latest figures on child obesity which show an increase rates from 8% in 2006/7 to 11% in 2011/12, and in particular the extreme inequalities that we now have in New Zealand."

Potential solutions suggested by Prof Blakely included taxing unhealthy food and banning junk food advertising from children's television programming.
You can read more about the survey on the SMC website or on Ministry of Health website.

Quoted: New Zealand Herald

"If you imagine a volcano is like a tube of toothpaste then a lava dome is like the congealed, dried toothpaste that has come out of the tube. It doesn't move like a lava flow but grows from the inside as new magma comes up and pushes the already cooled magma upwards and outwards."

- GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott

New from the SMC

Reflections on Science:

Science funding: Sir Peter Gluckman reflects on science funding and the peer review process. Have we got the balance right - and how do we ensure the best outcome?

Experts Respond:

Fat tax: New Zealand researchers have published a study examining how taxes and subsidies could improve healthing eating - experts respond.

National health survey: The Ministry of Health has released the results from the latest National Health Survey of New Zealand adults and kids.

Fracking the UK: The British Government has allowed hydraulic fracturing to recommence. The UK SMC rounded up reaction from scientists.
In the news:

Focus on fat tax: New Zealand research into pricing strategies for healthy eating has been discussed in the media.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Conservation, Zoos and Elephant - The exorbitant cost of shipping elephants to NZ could be spent on a multitude of other initiatives, writes Wayne Linklater.

Do we talk about the right cancers? John Pickering undertakes some interesting analysis to highlight media biases in reporting on cancer.
Kidney punch

Obesity costs - Counting the cost of obesity is more complicated than is seems, writes economist Eric Crampton.
Dismal Science

The fat tax debate is reignited again - Can food pricing change the way we eat? Nutritionist Amanda Johnson looks at the latest NZ research.
Food Stuff

Mad on Radium - Grant Jacobs reviews Rebecca Priestley's latest stocking-stuffing read, Mad on Radium.
Code for Life

Research highlights

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

Genetic rescue: In 1973, two populations of South Island robins were established on separate islands in the Marlborough Sounds with just five individuals each. After almost 40 years of inbreeding, the robins weren't doing so well, less eggs were hatching and the birds were more susceptible to disease. Canterbury researchers have now boosted the wellbeing of both populations by exchanging individuals between the groups. The increase in genetic diversity has improved survival of the birds as well as sperm quality and immunity to pathogens.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Bond, James Bond: Violence in James Bond films was more than twice as common in Quantum of Solace than in the 1962 movie Dr No, researchers from New Zealand's University of Otago have found. They found that rates of violence increased significantly over the period studied (a total of 22 Bond films) and there was an even bigger increase in portrayals of severe violence: acts that would be likely to cause death or injury if they occurred in real life.
Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine

Bedroom TV linked to obesity: New research has found that children with a TV in the bedroom were more likely to watch more TV and have higher levels of obesity when compared with their peers who did not have a bedroom TV. While simply watching TV is associated with inactivity and weight gain the researchers note that specifically bedroom TV watching could be linked a lack of sleep and involvement in family meals, also related to obesity.
American Journal of Preventative Medicine

Nature's creativity boost: Ditching the laptop and cell phone and going bush this summer could give your creativity quite the boost according to new US research. Psychologists found that backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after spending four days in nature disconnected from electronic devices.

Light-controlled gel 'muscles': Researchers have developed light-responsive hydrogels which are predicted to have a variety of technological uses. The gels expand and contract upon exposure to ultraviolet or visible light in ways that mimic muscles, and may pave the way for further development of "soft robotics". The authors demonstrate that plates and coils made of these gels and suspended in solution can be deformed at will by shining light from different positions.
Nature Communications

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

CCAC: Tim Groser announced this week that NZ would join the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) which focuses on short-lived GHGs, but noted that group is 'not a substitute for action on the real climate change problem, CO2' .

Free vaccine: A free whooping cough vaccine will be available to all pregnant women from 1 January 2013 to help protect their new-born babies from this serious disease.

Cow data: The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is looking for feedback on the rules surrounding the New Zealand dairy herd improvement industry, particularly management of genetic data for cows.

Upcoming sci-tech events
Resilience by design: ecological footprinting for resilient regional planning - Workshop series - 16 December, Wellington.
Making Science Work - Public lecture by Sir Paul Nurse - University of Auckland 18 Jan, Auckland
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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