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Is social media any good for science?

Issue 131 April 29 - May 5

Is social media any good for science?

Amid a deluge of Facebook updates, Twitter "retweets" and blog posts, science is increasingly getting an airing on social networks, but the scientific community is proceeding with caution.

The Media140 conference in Brisbane yesterday looked specifically at how science-related issues are dealt with in the world of social media, from using platforms like Facebook as a forum to discuss climate change to leveraging the power of the web to run citizen science projects.

Kicking off the conference Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Cente, compared social media to a Jackson Pollock painting - seemingly messy and complicated, but containing underlying clarity and truth. He said social media held huge promise for science communication efforts, but a battle for authority and domination of online discussions often drowned out sensible debate.

Elsewhere conference goers heard about "sock puppets" - cynical attempts to win over online arguments with fake personailities or organisations weighing in with seemingly legitimate commentary.

Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin joined a panel of journalists and science communicators to discuss the Pepsigate affair - how a major respected science blogging platform was nearly devastated by its move to feature a paid-for blog by scientists from beverages giant Pepsi.

Finally, futurist Kristin Alford closed things out with a keynote address on digital dysphorias - examples of how people are losing themselves in the online world with often devastating results.

If the overall impression was that there's more to lose than gain from engaging in discussion of science-related issues online, there were examples of where the medium really works for science - the use of data visualisation, crowd-sourcing science communication projects and using social networks as a form of peer-review.

Check out the Media140 site for articles, videos and content featured at the conference.

Every Royal wedding has a science angle
With thousands of scientists converging on London for tonight's wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, even science is going out of its way to get in on the action.

The website Embargowatch has collated some of the more interesting and bizarre attmepts by scientific institutions and publications to captialise on the Royal wedding frenzy - incuding the journal Current Biology which asked in a press release pushing some research:

"Will Kate Middleton's brain response toward others change along with her title? A new paper in Current Biology examines how our social status influences the way our brains respond to others of higher or lower rank."

Back in New Zealand, Landcare Research chose to examine the weighty mountain of carbon the wedding will generate with people travelling from all around the globe to attend the wedding in person.

As Time magazine noted:

"Experts from Landcare Research predict the occasion will generate more than 12 times as much greenhouse gases than Buckingham Palace in a whole year, totaling 6,765 tons of carbon dioxide."

Elsewhere on Twitter a different science-related discussion was underway - what should the 29 year-old Prince do to address his growing bald patch - try Rogaine, hair plugs, a number 1 buzz cut or as one tweeter put it: "just leave it be, advertising his testosterone!"

OECD to New Zealand: Go green
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released a report which suggests New Zealand should focus on producing and exporting technology which will counter green house gases (GHGs).

The OECD's Economic Survey of New Zealand, in addition to recommending the introduction of a capital gains tax and raising the retirement age, has stated that "Green growth would be key advantage" and "policies to pursue inclusive economic growth with sound environmental effects are essential to secure New Zealand's natural advantages in international competition"

The report notes that New Zealand has the second highest greenhouse gas output intensity in the OECD (after Australia) - almost half of which can be attributed to the agricultural sector. While there isn't any technology currently available to mitigate methane emission from farm animals, the document suggests that New Zealand could become a pioneer in developing such agri-tech and exporting it to the world.

The report also lauded the implementation of the Emissions Trading Scheme, but stressed that pricing signals in the scheme need to be strengthened. There was a further warning that other environmental assets may also need to be monetised - for instance water. With increases in intensive dairy farming, water scarcity and quality has become an issue of increasing importance.

As noted in an accompanying press release from the OECD, "The emissions trading scheme is a major development, but market based instruments to give natural assets a value should be used more broadly, notably to allocate water efficiently."

Read more in the National Business Review

On the science radar

Easter egg stress testing, solar-powered fish (almost), hanging up on E.T., Antarctic crab invasions, invisibility cloaks, royal jelly and royal inbreeding.

Quoted: Dominion Post

"There ought to be a stick as well as a carrot...This is very contentious, but it's starting to say that a condition of employment, or enrolment in a childcare centre or school, is that these are the vaccinations you must have."
Dr Tim Blackmore
Wellington Hospital
27th April 2011

New from the SMC

In the news:

Royal carbon footprint analysed - When the UK newspaper the Telegraph wanted an estimate of the royal wedding's carbon footprint, they turned to Kiwi experts. At the request of the newspaper, the CarboNZero team at Landcare Research has completed a slightly tongue-in-cheek analysis of the carbon emissions arising from the event.

OECD recommends NZ become green exporter - The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released its 2011 Economic Survey of New Zealand, which suggests the country focus on environmentally beneficial technology for an overseas market.

Immunisation promoted - This week (25-29 April) is New Zealand's National Immunisation Week, promoted by the Ministry of Health. An awareness campaign, which will continue in the coming months, aims to raise New Zealand's immunisation rate for under twos to 95%.

Sciblogs highlights

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

Chocolate problems - Why is it so hard getting chocolate just right? Marcus Wilson gives us a MasterChef-inspired taste of confectionery physics.
Physics Stop

The differences between men and women - Michael Edmonds enters no-(wo)mans land in the battle of the sexes to discuss male/female differences.
Molecular Matters

"I was a Skeptic, but..." - What makes a skeptic a skeptic? Darcy Cowan looks at some misconceptions about the label.

Pushing stuff with light: how Crookes radiometers work - Amiee Whitcroft explains the science behind her latest sci-novelty acquisition.

Vision & change in undergraduate biology education - Allison Campbell picks though some of the difficulties in charting a course for science students.

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand - Bryan Walker reviews this latest book from John Cook and Haydn Washington which lays out the case against climate change denial.
Hot topic

Research highlights

Medical complicity at Guantanamo Bay: Inspection of medical records, case files and legal affidavits provides compelling evidence that medical personnel who treated detainees at Guantanamo Bay failed to inquire and/or document causes of physical injuries and psychological symptoms they observed in the detainees.
PLoS Medicine
Brain areas 'nap' while you're awake: New research reveals how the brains of sleep-deprived rats briefly 'switch off' some brain regions while still being technically awake. This phenomenon was associated with the rats making mistakes in taxing motor tasks, leading the authors to hypothesise that it is also the basis of some fatigue-related errors in tired humans.
GPS captures Chilean earthquake: High-resolution GPS data has unraveled the physics of the giant earthquake that shook Chile in 2010. Satellite data allowed the researchers to model the earthquake in greater detail and with better resolution than prior earthquakes. From the models, they were able to revise the epicenter of the earthquake and calculate the speed of the fault rupture - which reached 3.1 kilometers per second.
Street smart birds need big brains: Identifying the biological traits that determine which species are likely to succeed in urbanized habitats is important for predicting global trends in biodiversity New research links relative brain size with the ability to persist in novel urban environments in passarine birds, and has important implications for our understanding of recent trends in biodiversity.
Biology Letters
Record number of whales, krill found in Antarctic bays: Scientists have observed a "super aggregation" of more than 300 humpback whales gorging on the largest swarm of Antarctic krill seen in more than 20 years in bays along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. the research highlights the changes in feeding behaviour caused by climate change and sea ice loss.
Jellyfish look up to get around: The already convoluted visual system of the box jelly fish just got a little more complex. Research has shown how four of the organisms 24 eyes always look upwards regardless of orientation. Field experiments suggest that this allows the jellyfish to use the overhead leaves of its mangrove swamp habitat as a visual guide for navigation.
Current Biology
Caterpillars inspire rolling robots: Researchers have been examining the diverse behaviors of caterpillars to find solutions for the new generation of search and rescue soft robots. Their work has focused on the extraordinary ability of some caterpillars to rapidly curl themselves into a wheel and propel themselves away from predators. Called 'ballistic rolling', this action serves as the basis for the design of the GoQBot, a soft material robot prototype.
Bioinspiration & Biomimetics
Fire ants 'raft' on water to survive: A recent study is the first to fully examine how fire ants form rafts to survive floods. The authors used an engineering approach to investigate how the ants formed hydrophobic structures to allow large numbers of ants float on the surface of water.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
'Superbug' mechanism uncovered: For the first time, scientists have been able to paint a detailed chemical picture of how a particular strain of bacteria has evolved to become resistant to antibiotics The research is a key step toward designing compounds to prevent infections by the recently evolved, drug-resistant "superbugs" that are infecting hospitalized patients and others.
'Wide and tall' clot risk: New research shows that the combination of being tall and obese, particularly in men, may substantially raise the risk of developing potentially dangerous blood clots in veins deep in the body.
Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology
Common background for behavioural disorders: A large, long-running cohort study at the University of Otago, Christchurch has identified common risk factors for two childhood behavioural conditions: Conduct disorder and Oppositional defiant disorder. Factors such as low family socioeconomic status, childhood exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse or interparental violence, and maternal smoking during pregnancy are linked to both disorders.
Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Carbon nanotube TV: Carbon nanotubes may soon be part of a display screen near you. A new study shows that transistors made out of carbon nanotubes use less power than standard silicon transistors, while keeping display colors just as bright. The findings could aid ongoing efforts to make organic light-emitting diodes more energy efficient and longer lasting.
Fungus defence uncovered: Botrytis bunch rot, a disease caused by the fungal pathogen Botrytis cinerea, can devastate grape vineyards. Yet other plants can repel the invader and protect themselves by mounting a form of chemical warfare against the fungi through the production of antimicrobial substances, called phytoalexins.Scientists have uncovered a key component in the signaling pathway that regulates the production of phytoalexins to kill the disease-causing fungus.
Plant Cell
Volcanic ash warranted air travel shutdown: Airspace closures in Europe potentially averted tragic consequences after Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano shot ash high into the atmosphere in April 2010.e. Danish researchers have analysed the samples and determined that the costly flight cancellations had likely been warranted. The volcano produced ash particles that were especially fine-grained, hard, sharp, and capable of sandblasting airplane surfaces such as windows and exposed aluminum parts.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
What does ecosystem collapse look like? Researchers monitoring a range of ecological vital signs in a remote lake have detected what they say is an unmistakable warning -- a death knell -- of the impending collapse of the lake's aquatic ecosystem. Their study examined the impact of species introduction in an aquatic environment and identified the extensive changes that occur as an ecosystem restructures.
Parrot vision: Although they generally have good vision, it seems Senegal parrots cannot see whats right under their noses. A new study describes for the first time the parrot visual field and suggests that parrots compensate for a lack of vision directly below their eyes by having a very touch sensitive bill.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Social ranking in the brain: Our own social status influences the way our brains respond to others of higher or lower rank, according to a new fMRI study . People of higher subjective socioeconomic status show greater brain activity in response to other high-ranked individuals, while those with lower status have a greater response to other low-status individuals.
Current Biology

Policy updates

Some highlights from the week include:

Antarctic directions strategy launched - New Zealand Government's Antarctic and Southern Ocean Science Directions and Priorities 2010-20 framework document has been officially launched by Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson.

Air quality amendments analysed - The Ministry for the Environment has published its evaluation of Revised National Environmental Standards for Air Quality regulations, exploring options for improving air quality.

National Immunisation Week - The Ministry of Health has been promoting child immunisation this week (23-29 April) and plans to continue the campaign for several months to increase awareness.

Joyce attends digital conference - The Minister for Communications, Steven Joyce, travelled to Tasmania to attend the 2011 Korea Australia New Zealand (KANZ) Summit: Digital Futures to discuss broadband infrastructure and the latest research and developments in digital applications and content.

Turia addresses conference - Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia is attending the WHO Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Noncommunicable Disease Control in Moscow and has focused her opening speech on New Zealand issues and solutions in a global context.

New govt meat fund - Economic Development Minister David Carter has announced an $850,000 contestable fund to drive further growth of our second-largest export earner, the red meat industry.

Upcoming sci-tech events
National Primary Science Week - Nationwide, 2-7 May.

Stormwater 2011 Conference - Auckland, 3-6 May.

The decline in New Zealand activism: who cares? - Presentation by Dr Sandra Grey - Wellington, 5 May.

Agencies for Nutrition Action National Conference 2011 - Auckland 3-4 May.

Tackling Wicked Problems: Lessons from Autism Policy - Seminar by Hilary Stace - Wellington, 6 May.

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


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