SMC Heads-Up: SMC turns Five! Plus unravelling Phar Lap's DNA and global science journalism
Issue 237 28 June - 4 July 2013
Five years of science and the media
The SMC celebrated five years in business this week and took the opportunity to reflect on some of the big science-related stories it has had input into.
The slide presentation Five Years of Science in the Media uses Meltwater media tracking statistics to plot some of those big stories - from the Canterbury earthquakes to 1080 use, fracking to the Rena oil spill.
Tracking the the topic "science" using a series of target keywords across mainstream media outlets from 2008 - 2013 shows a marked increase in references (see graph), something that's reflected in the SMC's own internal tracking related to the thousands of stories we have had direct input into in the form of recommending research and experts, holding our online briefings and issuing hundreds of rapid round-ups.
So while there is more science media than ever - is the quality and depth of coverage improving? Are we fulfilling our brief of bringing about an improvement in the "quality, depth and breadth of coverage of science-related issues, and particularly coverage of New Zealand science and innovation".
We believe coverage has improved and that the SMC is having an impact - though our work with journalists, scientists, communications teams around the country and with journalism training organisations.
The SMC has 350 journalists registered to receive its material - from news wire and magazine writers to TV executive producers and radio hosts. The SMC Expert Database is, we believe, the most comprehensive scientific expert database in New Zealand and is drawn on every day by journalists calling the centre.
The second edition of the SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science released today is aimed at general reporters covering science stories and features an updated guide to the New Zealand science system.
Helping scientists too
Last year we launched Science Media SAVVY, a two-day intensive workshop for scientists keen to step up and work more with the media.
It has been a great success, with around 40 scientists having completed the course, some of whom have gone on to become regular commentators in the media on their areas of science.
Our Sciblogs platform hosts dozens of scientists who are writing in their areas of expertise. It is the most popular science blog network in Australasia and stories are regularly followed by by the mainstream media.
The journalists we work with have covered the science-related angles of some of the biggest national news stories of the last decade - the Canterbury earthquakes, the Pike River disaster, the Rena oil spill and the swine flu pandemic among them. Those stories have also kept us busy as we worked hard to support the media when they needed scientific context.
Ultimately the best examples of our impact rest in how we make a difference on individual stories and issues - turning the tide when science is hijacked, injecting evidence when debates strike a hysterical note, helping journalists articulate the big picture issues to their readers, viewers and listeners. In that qualitative sense, we have hundreds of great examples to choose from.
On behalf of the Science Media Centre staff and board I'd like to thank the journalists, scientists, press officers and others who have worked with us and supported us over the years.
Thanks also to the Royal Society of New Zealand, our host institution which has been a staunch supporter and preserved our independence throughout. Special thanks to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, which funds the Science Media Centre as part of its efforts to engage New Zealanders with science and innovation.
Making sense of uncertainty
Science journalists from around the world met this week in Helsinki to examine the health of their profession and consider trends in science communication overall.
The World Conference of Science Journalists always attracts some of the best-known scientists and science writers in the world. This year was no different, with speakers and panelists responding to the massive change underway in the media - and the increasing complexity of science.
All of the WCSJ plenaries are online for video playback and make for interesting viewing. A side session (not online yet) considered the role of SMCs in the science media landscape.
The London-based science communication non-profit Sense About Science used the WCSJ to launch a new booklet Making Sense of Uncertainty, which was authored by a group of scientists and journalists and gets to the heart of the problems inherent in communicating uncertainty and risk in science.
As the authors note: "...in public discussion scientific uncertainty is presented as a deficiency of research. We want (even expect) certainty - safety, effective public policies, useful public expenditure.
"Uncertainty is seen as worrying, and even a reason to be cynical about scientific research - particularly on subjects such as climate science, the threat of disease or the prediction
of natural disasters."
So what's the solution? Getting better at communicating the fact that we often have enough information to make sound science-based decisions anyway.
"What we need instead is to talk about just how much information is enough to make a sound decision, because if we ask whether we really need more certainty, sometimes the answer is
a clear 'no'."
Tricks for new writers
Elsewhere, US science writer Carl Zimmer has penned an insightful guide for would-be science writers. His advice: write, write lots:
"It's a bit like playing the trombone. If you walked up to a jazz band and announce that, after much thought, you think being a trombonist would be fun, they probably won't hire you on the spot.
"They want to hear you play. A trombone teacher can help you become a better player, as can performing in school bands. But what matters most of all is those hours, day in and day out, that you spend alone practicing the trombone."
In other words, find a science subject and write about it - on a blog, in a student newspaper, just write about your chosen field and be prolific.
The next WCSJ will be held in Seoul, South Korea, in 2015
On the science radar this week...
Aussies to claim Phar Lap genome
DNA from the legendary New Zealand-born racing horse Phar Lap is to be studied in the hope of identifying the genetic underpinnings of the thoroughbred's success.
The University of Sydney this week announced they will be sequencing Phar Lap's DNA, and the skeleton of Phar Lap -- housed at the Te Papa museum in Wellington -- is now missing a bit of tooth, sent to across the ditch for DNA extraction and analysis.
Phar Lap, born near Timaru in 1926, won 37 of 51 races he entered, including the Melbourne Cup in 1930, over the course of a four year racing career.
"We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available," said Dr Natasha Hamilton, the team leader from the University's Faculty of Veterinary Science
"The DNA sequence will tell us if Phar Lap's genetic make-up looks like star racehorses of today, including whether he is a sprinter or a stayer (genetically better suited to running long distances)."
Te Papa Curator of Sciences Leon Perrie explained to the New Zealand Herald that a piece of Phar Lap's incisor tooth was used because DNA tended to be better preserved in teeth.
However, don't expect to see a gap-toothed Phar Lap skeleton next time you visit the Museum
"We've taken 5mm off the base of the tooth and then the tooth has been reinserted and you can't tell - you can't see that there's a bit missing,'' Perrie said.
Although the tooth is the best bet for extracting DNA, the genetic material is likely to be fragmented and would not be usable in other projects that require large amounts of good quality DNA such as cloning.
"So, sorry punters, there is no hope of Phar Lap II running around a few years from now," Dr Hamilton said.
You can read a round up of national and international news coverage on the Science Media Centre website.
PM's Science Prizes
There is still time to apply for the The Prime Minister's Science Prizes, with applications closing on Wednesday 17th July.
The annual prizes encourage and celebrate New Zealand's outstanding scientists, science teachers and science communicators.
There are five prizes in total with a combined value of $1 million:
• Prime Minister's Science Prize
• Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist PrizePrime Minister's Science Teacher Prize
• Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize
• Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize
To find out more, visit www.pmscienceprizes.org.nz .
Quoted: The Guardian
"If you've got just the cartoon perception of the devils you may be a bit disappointed, but as display animals go, they are quite delightful."
Howel Williams, director of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, commenting on the plan to send Tasmanian Devils to NZ zoos.
New from the SMC
Antarctic mysteries: NZ and Australian experts at the Antarctic Strategies conference in Hobart discuss climate uncertainties buried in the ice.
Phar Lap: Australian scientists are sequencing the genome of the famous NZ racehorse Phar Lap.
Some of the highlights from this week's posts:
Robin Bain finger marks - Forensic scientist Anna Sandiford comments on the latest evidence presented regarding the Bain murders.
First find your tuatara (or how to sequence a genome) - David Winter lays out the recipe for a successful analysis of Tuatara DNA.
Sequencing the Tuatara Genome
Too little pee - Kidney whizz John Pickering leaks the latest on the how urine output can predict clinical outcomes in hospital.
Unintended but predictable - Banning the importation of old clunkers may have unintentionally lead to old cars staying on the road longer in NZ, writes Eric Crampton.
BioMag Gets Rude Awakening Over Melatonin Claims - Michael Edmonds successfully takes a manufacturer to task over shonky health claims.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Maths and mortgages: People who are bad at maths are more likely to default on their home loan, according to new research. A US study of subprime borrowers found that the individuals with lower numerical ability spent more time in delinquency and experienced a greater frequency of foreclosure than individuals with higher numerical ability.
Breastfeeding boosts ability to climb social ladder: An analysis of over 30,000 individuals has found that those who were breastfed as babies were more likely to rise in social class as adults when compared to those who were not, even after controlling for other factors. Breastfeeding increased the odds of upwards social mobility by 24 percent and reduced the odds of downward mobility by around 20 percent.
Tiny laser key to faster computing? Japanese scientists have developed a miniature silicon laser that needs only a tiny amount of power to function. The authors say this device will stimulate photonics research towards compact photonic integrated circuit chips, which will enable the trend of increasing computer processing power to continue.
Weight conversations:Conversations between parents and adolescents that focus on weight and size are associated with an increased risk for unhealthy adolescent weight-control behaviours, such as extreme dieting or purging. Researchers also found that overweight or obese teens whose mothers engaged in conversations that were focused only on healthful eating behaviours were less likely to diet and use unhealthy weight-control behaviours.
Contagion connections: Children and healthcare workers are the biggest potential spreaders of infections disease due to the number of individuals they come into contact with on a given day, according to a study of social connectivity in Great Britain. At the other end of the spectrum, retired and unemployed adults are the least likely to pass on infections, only making contact with a handful of people each day.
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Whiteners: New rules to protect people who use tooth whitening products will come into effect this week, restricting the sale of products that contain 7% hydrogen peroxide or more.
PGP funding: The Ministry for Primary Industries Minister announced almost $7 million in Government funding for two new Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programmes.
NZ & Canada research: Canadian and Kiwi authorities are are jointly funding a research project investigating care for older people with complex health needs.
Insecticides: An Environmental Protection Agency reassessment has lead to new controls and several insecticides no longer approved for use.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• Indigenous Research Conference 2013 - 30 June - 3 July, Hamilton.
• Coming to the table: New Zealand research on 'Future Foods' - Seminar from Virginia Baker, ESR - 3 July, Wellington.
• Beyond the Final Frontier: Latest developments in Space Law - public lecture from Dr Chris Newman - 5 July, Wellington.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.