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SMC Heads-Up: Shutdown, tsunami hazard, designer babies

SMC Heads-Up: Shutdown hurts science, tsunami hazard, designer babies and covering disasters

Issue 251 Oct 4 - 10 2013

Government shutdown hits science

The US Government shutdown of public services looks to drag on as politicians failed this week to come to an agreement that would lift the funding freeze on non-essential services.

Among those facing disruption are thousands of US researchers - and their international collaborators, with agencies such as NASA and the United States Drug Administration standing their scientists down.

Sciblogger Grant Jacobs has a round-up on how far and wide the impact is being felt in science.

Wired reports that one area of science that could be most seriously hit by the shutdown should it drag on, is biomedical research.

Wired quotes one biomedical researcher who said:

"I don't think the public realizes the devastating impact that this has on scientific research. Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated. They involve specific treatments and specific times. You can't just stop and restart it. You've probably just destroyed the experiment."

The shutdown has had no impact on Antarctica New Zealand's Antarctic Programme. 120 scientists and logistics staff flew from Christchurch to Antarctica earlier this week, the first summer flight to the continent for the year.

NZ tsunami risk update and maps

Major recent global tsunamis have shattered assumptions about how large major earthquakes on plate boundaries can be, forcing a rethink of tsunami hazard across New Zealand.

Events such as the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohuku earthquake in Japan, the 2009 Samoa earthquake, and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami produced shaking at higher intensities than expected. Research into how and why this occurred has led to new, higher estimates of risk for coastal areas facing offshore subduction zones.

On Monday this week, results of a new national review of tsunami hazard were released, updating maximum wave height projections for towns and cities and covering the entire New Zealand coast for the first time.

Areas where tsunami hazard has been revised upwards include:

Northland, the north-west part of the Auckland region, Great Barrier Island, Coromandel Peninsula, and the Bay of Plenty;

the East Cape of the North Island, and parts of the Wairarapa coast, Southland, Stewart Island, Fiordland and Westland.

The Science Media Centre held an online briefing with GNS Science authors of the report. Access a recording of the briefing and a round up of media coverage on our website.

What was big in science news this week...

Diesel water spill , Zoo Kiwi tragedy, benefits of workplace drinking, Antarctic deployments and the 5000km Pacific Turtle

'Designer babies' patent controversy

A patent on a method which allows prospective parents to pick and choose their children's traits prior to undergoing fertility treatment has alarmed many ethicists and genetics researchers.

"I prefer a child with..."

So begins a hypothetical programme that allows parents to select which genetic traits they would like their child to have (from a user friendly drop-down menu) and determines which sperm or egg donors would offer the best chance the child inheriting such traits.

It may sound a bit sci-fi, but such a system has just been been patented by the direct-to-consumer genetics company 23andMe -- better known for offering genetic tests providing information about a customers health outlook and ancestry.

An illustration from 23andMe's patent application

The method allows sperm and eggs to be selected that are most likely to produce traits chosen by the parents, such as eye colour or athleticism, and also allows screening out of sperm and eggs likely to lead to genetic disease.

The controversial patent was highlighted in commentary article published today in the journal Genetics in Medicine.

" is clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial," writes author Prof Sigrid Sterckx of Ghent University with his collegues.

" is clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial," writes Prof Sigrid Sterckx of Ghent University with his collegues.

"The use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to avoid implantation of embryos bearing serious genetic abnormalities is by now becoming commonplace, but a computerized process for selecting gamete donors to achieve a baby with a "phenotype of interest" that the prospective parent "desires in his/her hypothetical offspring," as 23andMe puts it, seems to have much broader implications, for this process also entails the selection of traits that are not disease related."

23andMe has just published a post on the company's blog, defending the patent. "The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator," the company claims, "nor do we have any plans to do so."

Experts contacted by the SMC expressed a range of views upon learning of the patent.

Dr Colin Gavaghan, Director of the NZ Law Foundation Centre for Emerging Technologies at the University of Otago, commented:

"In my book Defending the Genetic Supermarket, I argued that prospective parents should, on the whole, be allowed to make these sorts of choices if they want; or at least, we should be able to offer them a pretty good reason if we are to ban them from doing so. That's a controversial position, and a lot of people of course disagree.

"But whatever we think about the rights and wrongs of this technology, I'm not sure that the patent process is the best way to regulate it. If we think there are serious moral objections to these sorts of choices, then let them be worked through via the democratic process.

Prof Martin Kennedy, Genetics Researcher, University of Otago, Christchurch, commented:

"My initial reaction to this is fairly negative... if 23andme are serious about developing or implementing this kind of thing, they will have a long way to go to make it both workable and legal, never mind the many questions around morality."

You can read further commentary on the 23andMe patent on the SMC website.

Policy news and developments

New MPI boss: Martyn Dunne CNZM has been appointed as the new Director-General of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Science Challenges: MBIE has announced that up to $470.3 million over 10 years in funding will be available for the first tranche of New Zealand's 10 National Science Challenges.

Tertiary Ed strategy: Steven Joyce this week released the draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-19, and the Review of University and Wānanga Governance, both of which are open for public submissions.

Disaster on deadline

The ninth in a series of articles from the new edition of the SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science which is available in full here.

Perched on the edge of the Pacific 'Ring of Fire', New Zealand sits in the most seismic region in the world, making volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis the most dangerous natural hazards we face.

Newsrooms have well-tested procedures for covering natural disasters that involve them working with emergency services and Civil Defence to get accurate information out to the public quickly. But hundreds of scientists around the country are involved in monitoring for natural hazards, managing disasters and helping prepare us for when the big one hits.

Having assisted the media cover the science-related angles of disasters like the Canterbury earthquakes, the Rena oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear incident, the SMC has extensive experience in responding to disaster. We can assist you when you need experts to put events in context. The organisations listed below are some of the main sources for science-related information on disasters.

Natural Hazards Research Platform: A multi-party research platform that is dedicated to increasing New Zealand's resilience to geological and weather-related natural hazards, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, flood, snow, wind, storm, landslides and tsunami, through high quality collaborative research. Members include: GNS Science, NIWA, University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, Massey University and engineering firm Opus.

GNS Science: This Crown Research Institute monitors earthquake, volcano and tsunami activity in the region and the GNS duty scientist will often be the first port-of-call when these types of hazards emerge. GNS also operates GeoNet, the geological hazard monitoring network which detects and analyses earthquakes, volcanic activity, large landslides and slow deformation that precedes large earthquakes.

Joint Centre for Disaster Research: A joint venture between GNS Science and Massey University, the centre looks at the impacts of natural, man-made and environmental disasters on a local and national level. Managing risk from natural hazards is an area of study, as is preparedness for disasters and recovery from their aftermath. The centre is located within the School of Psychology and is based at the Wellington campus of Massey University.

MetService: Researchers undertaking weather science at the weather forecasting bureau have expertise in storms, rainfall and flooding, which is arguably New Zealand's most destructive hazard.

Institute of Earth Science and Engineering: Volcanology is the specialty of the IESE, based at the University of Auckland and focused on volcanic hazard assessment and mitigation.

Natural Hazards Research Centre: Researchers at the University of Canterbury have particular expertise in active tectonics and earthquakes, drawn on extensively in the aftermath of the 2010 Canterbury and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, as well as expertise in landslide hazard and volcanic surveillance.

Scion: This Rotorua-based Crown Research Institute specialising in forestry also undertakes research into forest and bush fires, a common natural and man-made hazard in New Zealand.

Other agencies that can offer science-related expertise on disasters include - Maritime New Zealand, Ministry for Primary Industries, Ministry of Health, Environmental Science & Research (which now houses the National Radiation Laboratory).

Climate update confirms human factor

The world's media has had a full week to digest the IPCC's major update on climate science, but the updated outlook for climate change has received a muted response.

That's likely down to the fact that there are few surprises in the Working Gorup 1 report and the summary for policymakers, which were released in Stockholm last Friday, the latter of which distills the science down to a summary useful for those seeking to set policy to combat climate change.

The IPCC's Assessment Report 5 states that the last 30 years were probably the warmest since at least 1400 years ago. Future warming estimates out to 2100 are similar to those outlined in the last IPCC report - 4 degrees C for the highest scenario.

The SMC gathered reaction from New Zealand climate scientists who contributed to the IPCC report.

IPCC Working Group 1 co-chair Professor Thomas Stocker will be in Wellington next week for a stakeholders workshop on the IPCC report. The event will be held at the Royal Society and feature a panel discussion facilitated by SMC manager Peter Griffin. Details of the workshop, which will be live streamed via the internet, are available here.

Quoted: Wairarapa Times-Age

"This is important information and is of public concern. It needed to be reported. But you also have "tsunami" as a sexy, exciting word - 12m waves sound impressive."

Andrew Bonallack, Wairarapa Times-Age editorx on Tsunami risk

New from the SMC


Tsunami risk: Check out the SMC media briefing on the tsunami risk report and and round-up of following media coverage.

In the News:

Moa droppings: Bits of pollen, plant matter and DNA in fossilised moa poo offer clues to the giant birds' eating habits.

Experts Respond:

The ideal child? A patent on designer babies has scientists uneasy.

Reflections on Science:

US Shutdown: The Washington Post examines how the US government shutdown is affecting science state-side.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

A call for smart food policies to create an 'appetite for health' - Dr Vandevijvere and Prof Swinburn from the University of Auckland discuss policies to get New Zealanders eating healthy.

Public Health Expert

Is a genome enough? Grant Jacobs kicks off his 'Not Just DNA' blog series with a look at genomes, epigenetics and Shakespeare.

Code for Life

Worms & Science Related Urban Myths - How to tell which end of a worm is which? Micheal Edmonds grabs an urban myth by the tail.

Molecular Matters

Research highlights

Some of the major research papers that made headlines this week...

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

Spooking dolphins: Proposals for offshore energy schemes often raise concerns that loud noise will exclude dolphins and porpoises from large areas around developments. However Scottish researchers have shown that while air gun noise does appear to scare dolphins away from a given area, they typically return within a matter of hours.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Bees and diesel: Exposure to common air pollutants found in diesel exhaust pollution can affect the ability of honeybees to recognize learnt floral odours, according to new research. The authors speculate that these changes may potentially affect honeybees' foraging efficiency and, ultimately, could affect the pollination services that these insects supply.

Scientific Reports

Mid-life stress linked to dementia: Coping with a lot of stress in middle age may boost the risk of developing dementia in late life, at least among women, suggests Swedish research. The authors say the findings, based on a 40 year study of 800 women, show the response to common life events may trigger long lasting physiological changes in the brain.

BMJ Open

Literary fiction helps mind reading: Curling up with a good novel could be boosting your ability to understand others' emotions, according to new research. A series of experiments found that participants who read excerpts from best-selling fiction books such as 'The Runner' by Don DeLillo, performed better on tests of Theory of Mind -- the ability to understand what some one else is thinking-- compared to those who read non-fiction excerpts.


Science publishing wild west: The open access publishing market is the new 'Wild West' according to the author of a new study showing that over half of open access publisher accepted a spoof cancer paper with numerous errors. The experiment highlights the hit-and-miss peer review in online publishing and rise of predatory online publishers seeking only to make money.


Upcoming sci-tech events

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

A Zoo of Galaxies - talk by Dr Karen Masters - 5 October, Wellington.

From the top and bottom: A structural geologist's views of active plate boundary deformation - Prof Tim Little Inaugral Lecture - 8 October, Wellington.

People and the planet - how can we all live and flourish on a finite Earth? 2013 Rutherford Memorial Lecture from Sir John Sulston FRS - 8 October, Auckland; 9, Wellington; 10, Dunedin.

Discovering the Maya: reading the record - Open lecture by Professor Norman Hammond (US) - 9 October, Dunedin.

Guilt in the volcanic zone - Lecture from Dr Brendan Donovan - 10 October, Auckland.

Adventures in forensic statistics - Prof James Curran Inaugural Lecture - 10 October, Auckland.

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