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Thorny issues for scientists talking climate

Issue 127 April 1 - 7

Thorny issues for scientists talking climate

In a session at this week's Climate futures: Pathways for society forum in Wellington, a panel of science writers and journalists wrestled with what the best advice might be to give climate scientists seeking to reach out to the public.

Science historian Erik Conway -- co-author of the recent book 'Merchants of Doubt' -- opened with an exhortation for scientists to recognise that the climate debate is not about science, but about values and beliefs. He emphasised that scientists should resist their instinctive response to supply ever more information and data, and instead find ways to communicate their own values about the society they want to help create.

UK environmental journalist Fred Pearce focused on the difficulties media typically encounter when dealing with issues of complexity. He delved into the fallout from 'climategate' and warned journalists will be asking tougher questions from now on. Urging greater openness and oversight among climate scientists, he warned against attempts to grab headlines by oversimplifying the message and disguising uncertainty.

In contrast to these views, NZ Herald Economics Editor Brian Fallow rounded out the panel with a call for scientists to hone their messages to gain cut-through with an increasingly under-resourced mainstream media. "Scientists can't all be monks; some must be missionaries," he said. When facing climate sceptics in the media, he urged scientists to consider the opportunity cost of responding to red herring arguments -- every minute wasted means less time to get your message across. He finished by highlighting the need for scientists to spend far more effort communicating the lags and inertia inherent in the climate system, which mean that current actions will lock in changes for decades or centuries to come.

Listen to a full recording of the session on the SMC website

Also, a quick reminder that the Science Media Centre will be hosting a special workshop for journalists in Auckland with speaker Erik Conway on Monday 4 April 10 - 12 am. Contact the SMC for more details

Gluckman report on science education

Tuesday will see the launch of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman's report into the state of science education in New Zealand schools and follows concerns that Kiwi kids while engaged in science at an early stage drop science-related subjects as they progress their education.

Foreshadowing the launch of the report, which will involve an interactive multicast event next Tuesday allowing teachers around the country to watch a video feed and ask questions via internet chat, Sir Peter, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, said New Zealand's science education system was "well performing" but that there are "concerning deficits for parts of the community".

He said significant enhancement in science education may be possible through closer collaboration between schools and the science system. Sir Peter, via the Liggin's Institute he founded, runs the LENScience network, a service allowing school students to participate in face-to-face and online tutorial sessions with scientists.

The Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty First Century report will be launched Tuesday 5 April from 4 - 6pm.

Contact the PMCSA's office for an embargoed copy of the report and more information about the event.

Ongoing concerns over Fukushima radiation - updates from SMCs

Radioactive iodine-131 from the damaged Fukushima power plant has been detected in seawater near the plant, and in the atmosphere across the northern hemisphere.

Recent reports indicate the levels of I-131 in the sea near the plant's drains are over 4,000 times the legal limit. Slightly increased air levels of the isotope have been recorded in the UK, South Korea, Iceland, Russia, Canada and several US states.

To aid journalists in their coverage of the issue, the Science Media Centre network continues to provide expert scientific commentary on breaking news regarding the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake.

This week, the UK SMC focuses on the exact risks posed by the current levels of atmospheric iodine-131 recorded in the UK. Nuclear Materials Professor Neil Hyatt from the University of Sheffield is unconcerned, stating "At the level detected, this quantity of iodine does not present any hazard to human health."

The Australian SMC looks at iodine-131 and the future of the Fukushima plant. Dr John Price of Monash University says there is no quick fix, " is getting better, but it will take months to fully control the releases and establish water injection and cooling that can be regarded as adequately permanent. Worker safety is a key issue now"

The Japanese Science Media Centre gathered commentary from the scientists behind new research into global linkages between earthquakes (or, more accurately, lack thereof), and also provided the opinion of an energy expert, Professor Shinichi Iwamoto from Waseda University, on why rolling power blackouts are the only current solution for Japan's overstretched electricity infrastructure. He confesses, "This was the only option. We're 10 million kW of power short and there's no other way to balance the supply and the demand"

On the science radar

A first look at Mercury, the problem of poisonous plates, reflections on dyslexia, shedding light on artificial leaves and metal origami shopping bags.

Quoted: Dominion Post

"Society needs to take over from science when we're talking about global risk management. We can't wait till the scientists understand everything."

Professor Martin Manning
Director, Climate Change Research Institute
1st April 2011

New from the SMC

Expert on Global earthquake risk - Recent research on links between major earthquakes, published in Nature Geoscience, prompted our colleagues at the UK SMC to contact one of the authors for comment on how earthquakes might affect global quake risk.
Reflections on science:

Podcasts from NZBio Conference - SMC was at the recent NZBio 2011 biotechnology conference in Auckland and recorded several of the talks.
Updated audio this week:
'Clean Green 100% New Zealand: Powering the Globe'
'Why do NZ investors bother with bio?'

In the news:

Ant-dropping wasps causing a buzz - Victoria University scientists have documented invasive wasps employing an odd strategy when competing with ants for food: rather attacking the acid spraying ants, the wasps simply pick them up drop them away from the food, avoiding a direct fight. The research has gained major media coverage both in New Zealand and overseas.

The 'pill' for possums - Radio Live's Graeme Hill interviewed Janine Duckworth, Landcare Research's pest control specialist, about a new vaccine that might control the possum population in New Zealand. The vaccine, rather than killing possums, aims to cause infertility - leading to an eventual decline in numbers.


Experts respond: Fukishima and Iodine-131 - The Australian SMC has asked local experts for comment on the next steps for controlling the Fukishima reactor and the implications of increased radioactive isotope levels in the atmosphere.
SMC Japan:

Experts respond: Rolling blackouts - The SMC in Japan has provided comments from an expert scientist regarding the necessity of rolling power blackouts to conserve electricity in wake of the devestating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami..

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights of this week's posts include:

Is this a conversation worth having? - The SMC's Peter Griffin looks at new Australian science communication initiative, The Conversation.
Griffin's Gadgets

The influence of marketing on kids' food preferences - Amanda Johnson discusses how packaging and advertising play a key role in our childrens' diet.
Food Stuff

Bullying - it's everyone's problem - Allison Campbell responds to the recent media coverage on bullying in New Zealand schools with a request to work together.
Bio Blog

Loud and Clear - The climate change message is not lost on Bryan Walker as he discusses the difficulty of balancing 'doom and gloom' with a call to action for a better future.
Hot Topic
'Criminal Minds' Brings Archaeology into Mainstream News
- Archaeologist Brigid Gallagher is on the case, following news of a (very old) potential murder weapon being unearthed in Auckland's Victoria Tunnel.
Digging the Dirt

Research highlights

The origins of Fiordland's landscapes - American scientists have used a complex technique to chart the three dimensional history of the stunning vistas of Fiordland, New Zealand. The researchers have been able to show how climate changes and erosion carved out the scenic valleys of the region.

Large earthquakes do not increase global quake risk- Looking back on earthquake records may help us understand the patterns of seismic activity that follow a 7+ magnitude quake. Examination of 30 years worth of earthquakes around the globe found that large earthquakes did not increase the likelihood of another quake in areas over 1000km away.
Nature Geoscience

Future may hold freshwater shortages - New models predicting water availability suggest that by 2050, some cities may have difficulty maintaining freshwater supplies. Based on population projections and climate change models, the suggests that in many cities around the globe there will not be enough water to sustain large numbers of urban dwellers.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fake acupuncture as effective as real needles in treating nausea - A Swedish study has revealed that acupuncture performed with telescoping 'trick' needles, which do not pierce the skin, is as effective as actual acupuncture methods in treating nausea in a group of cancer patients. Patients who received either form of acupuncture felt significantly less nausea than patients who received only standard care.

Cancer treatment benefits outweigh radiation risks - A new study concludes that, while there are some cancer risks associated with radiation therapies used for the for the treatment of existing cancers, the gains of such treatments outweigh the small possibility of developing a secondary cancer due to radiation exposure.
Lancet Oncology

Stretchy carbon nanotubes sense human movement- A Japanese laboratory has shown how flexible, durable carbon nanotubes can be used in strain detectors.The small, light weight detectors can easily record the movement of joints or even vocal cords. The researchers suggest such devices could be incorporated into clothing and used to monitor activity, or even used in virtual reality interfaces.
Nature Nanotechnology

The pain of getting dumped:
The 'hurt' of a breakup may be more real than you think. fMRI brain-scanning has revealed that feelings of social romantic rejection activate brain areas that are also involved in the perception of actual physical pain.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Chicken feather plastic show promise - Feathers, an inexpensive byproduct of the poultry industry, can be incorporated into a versatile plastic which is waterproof and can be moulded when heated. the feather plastic is stronger than other fossil fuel alternatives based on soy and starch.
American Chemical Society - Press release

Afraid of heights? Stress hormone may help therapy - Individuals suffering from a fear of heights may benefit by combining behavioural exposure therapy with an oral dose of the chemical cortisol, a hormone paradoxically associated with stress.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Policy updates

Some highlights from the week include:

Smith announces 50-50 goal on emissions - Climate Change Minister Nick Smith today announced the Government's long-term target of a 50% reduction in New Zealand greenhouse gases emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

NZ Energy review positive - Acting Energy and Resources Minister Hekia Parata says review released by the International Energy Agency has confirmed that New Zealand has strong energy markets and a high level of security.

Push on Maori disability research - Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia has launched a framework to guide future research on Maori disability, hoping to better direct services in health, disability and community sectors.

Upcoming sci-tech events
Comvita Science Symposium 2011- 4 Apr, Auckland.
Professor Edison Liu Medical Genomics lecture series - 4 Apr, Dunedin; 5 Apr, Wellington; 6 Apr, Auckland.

Science meets art: Investigating pigments in art and archaeology -
5 Apr, Hamilton - 2011 Royal Society of New Zealand Distinguished Speaker
Professor Robin Clark.
"Looking ahead; Science Education for the 21st century" Report Release - 5 Apr, Auckland (digital access also) - Sir Peter Gluckman.

'The euthanasia debate - why now?' Conference - 8 Apr, Wellington.

Electricity Futures for New Zealand - 7 Apr, Wellington - Dr J Morgan Williams.

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


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