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Science Deadline: cannabis, ice sheets, science journalism

In this issue: Cannabis' risks, melting ice sheets and the Science Journalism Fund.

Issue 505, 18 Jan 2019

Risks of cannabis in spotlight

The potential for cannabis-related harm is being downplayed in debates about the drug's legal status, according to Otago researchers.

in a joint editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal by research Associate Professor Joe Boden and the late Emeritus Professor David Fergusson, caution is urged before altering laws - with the researchers citing evidence from two of Otago's long-running population studies.

"Most contributions (to the debate) imply that cannabis is a relatively harmless drug, and that cannabis law change will only have beneficial consequences," they write.

"We would argue that, on the basis of evidence generated by longitudinal studies based in New Zealand, both assumptions are incorrect," Stuff reported.

These studies - the Christchurch Health and Development Study and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study - provide some of the most comprehensive data on cannabis-related harm in the world.

Cannabis use by those involved in the Christchurch study was associated with educational delay, welfare dependence, increased risks of psychotic symptoms, major depression, increased risks of motor vehicle accidents, tobacco use and other illicit drug use and respiratory impairment, Newshub reported.

Their proposal discouraged the use of cannabis, but proposed cautious decriminalisation and harsher penalties for supplying cannabis to those under 18.

Emeritus Professor Fergusson is the former director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study and dedicated nearly 40 years of his life to the research, until he died in October last year.

In another study out this week, using cannabis just once or twice as a teen was shown to have the potential to change the cannabis was shown to have the potential to lead to extra grey matter in the brain.

Led by Dr Catherine Orr, of Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology, the study found a link between the extra grey matter in some sites and increased anxiety.

Quoted: NZ Herald

"So don't expect your future self to come back to warn you to go easy at the office Christmas party. Just take that from me."

University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy
on the likelihood of travelling through time using wormholes.

Tilted Earth affects ice sheets

An NZ-US team of researchers has found just how sensitive Antarctica's ice sheets are to climate change - with the Earth's tilt on its axis able to alter the rate they grow or melt.

The researchers, from GNS Science, Victoria University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found variations in the ice sheet over vast time scales (hundreds of thousands of years) matched eccentric changes in the Earth's tilt.

In a paper published in Nature Geoscience, they suggest this is because changes to our planet's rotational axis can affect which parts of the Earth see the most sunlight and therefore drive different climatic patterns.

"If your tilt is high, basically it points the poles more directly at the sun so they get warmer, so at a high tilt you've got much more heat coming in to the polar regions," lead author and paleoclimate scientist Richard Levy told RNZ.

"It just so happens that our tilt right now is relatively high, and so perhaps in the coming decades - centuries, we would expect to see, an amplification of warming around the Antarctic that we haven't seen for millions of years."

The study adds to our knowledge of the history and behaviour of Antarctica's ice sheets and is further proof that urgent action is needed on emissions, co-author Professor Tim Naish, of Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre told Stuff.

"Persistent sea ice appears to have helped maintain a degree of stability in the Antarctic Ice Sheet. We cannot afford to lose it."

Levy told Newshub: "The bottom line is we've just got to stop putting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and particularly we've got to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere."

Science Journalism Fund opens

Applications are open and eligibility criteria have been updated for the latest round of the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund.

Grants ranging from $1500 to $5000 are available to fund reporting on new topics including:

• Sea level rise in Aotearoa New Zealand: $5000

• Improving New Zealand’s resilience to earthquakes: $5000

• Stronger homes on better land: $5000

• Science in the public interest: $5000

• Open call: $1500

Projects will be allowed a longer turnaround time than previous years, with stories required to be published before the end of the year.

For the first time, the fund also includes an open call - with priority given to new journalists and freelancers.

This will be the only call for applications for the fund in 2019. Applications close 28 February.

Policy news & developments

First TPP meeting: Trade Minister David Parker heads to Tokyo this week for the first commission meeting for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (CPTPP) since it came into effect on December 30, 2018.

Money for rural roads: The NZ Transport Agency will be investing $20 million to upgrade 670 kilometres of rural highways across Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu-Wanganui and the West Coast this year.

UN Human Rights Review: Justice Minister Andrew Little will lead a delegation to the UN in Geneva on January 21, which will consider New Zealand's human rights records over the past five years.

Whio gain ground: The release of 20 whio on the West Coast has grown the population at a Hokitika site to 652 pairs.

Regional erosion fund boost: Te Uru Rākau (Forestry New Zealand) has announced a $36m injection into a fund available to regional councils, which aims to prevent erosion through tree planting.

Stricter food contamination penalties proposed: Damien O'Connor has put forward a Member's Bill aimed at criminalising the contamination of food , including penalties for making threats or hoax statements.

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