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SMC Heads-Up to 2 June: Cellphones, Youth Challenges, PRINZ

Issue 135 May 27 - June 2

Cell phone cancer risk judgement due

A panel of 31 scientists has been gathering in France this week evaluating research to determine whether electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and other devices should be classified as carcinogenic.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organisation, will look to classify mobile phones on a five-point scale that could see low frequency, non-ionizing radiation from mobile devices given a clean bill of health, attributed some carcinogenic risk, or left unclassified.

The decision is widely anticipated by the telecommunications industry, as the classification could have implications for safety standards governing the use, sale and labeling of mobile phones, if some carcinogenic risk is associated with their use.

The long-running Interphone study looking at mobile phones and potential links to cancer was released last year (listen back to an SMC briefing on the topic here), but its findings were frustratingly inconclusive.

While it found an increase in brain cancer risk among heaviest users of mobile phones - classified as half an hour a day or more, flaws in the research methodology and the changes in mobile phone use during the span of the 10 year study cast doubt on its findings.

The SMC will be gathering reaction to the IARC classification from local and international experts once it is announced. (Expected to be on May 31 in France (June 1 NZT)).

Journalists registered with the SMC will receive an update ahead of this with details for accessing experts in radio-frequency, non-ionising radiation and cancer risk. Contact the SMC for further details.

On the science radar

Warning webs, shrinking sensations, Machiavellian music, supernova sonatas, lucrative landfills and the most illustrious illusions of 2011.

Adolescence report launch next week

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, will on Wednesday announce the release of a comprehensive report into the health and social issues faced by New Zealand's teenagers.

The report, titled "Improving the transition: reducing social and psychological morbidity during adolescence", was requested by the Prime minister early last year.

According to an interim report on the project, the aim of the review was to "explore the causes of adolescent behaviour and to indicate where there may be opportunities for changes to policy and practices that might help to mitigate negative outcomes for New Zealand's young people."
The extensive 300+ page document to be released on Wednesday will draw on the combined expertise of dozens of specialists to provide recommendations on a wide range of issues.

Topics examined will include: under-age drinking, suicide, obesity, social media, drug abuse, pregnancy, bullying, family support, early intervention and self-control.

Sir Peter has stated previously that the today's adolescents face a "powder keg" of issues and warned that "the solutions to the problem are much more complex than is generally appreciated".

The report will be officially launched at an event in Wellington on Wednesday 1 June at 11am, and will be available on the PMCSA website at that time.

Advance copies will be released to media under embargo on Mon 30 May. Contact for more info.

Pushing geothermal frontiers deeper

Extending geothermal energy's potential to tap fluids reaching 400 °C in rock formations as much as 5km below the Earth's surface was the topic of an international workshop this week in Taupo.

While around 13% of New Zealand's present electricity comes from geothermal, scientists involved in the "HADES: Hotter and Deeper Exploration Science" workshop are convinced that massive gains can be made by pushing the technological boundaries further.

"Scientists conservatively estimate that deep geothermal resources in the central North Island could provide 10,000 megawatts for over 100 years for New Zealand," says GNS Science Senior Geothermal Scientist Greg Bignall, a convenor of the Taupo workshop.

"This would satisfy all of New Zealand's current electricity demand, which is generated from a capacity of 9,000 megawatts," Dr Bignall said.

The Science Media Centre held an online media briefing ahead of the event. You can listen back to a recording on our website.

Registered journalists can also download speakers' slides from the SMC Resource Library.

Science front and centre at PRINZ

PR practitioners from around the country were in Rotorua this week at the Public Relations Institute's conference, which posed the question whether PR is an art or a science.

The conference heard from Sir Paul Callaghan who has been blazing a trail around the country giving his "Beyond the Farm and the Themepark" lectures, which call on New Zealand to use science and technology entrepreneurialism to diversify New Zealand's economy

Elsewhere, Zespri communications manager reflected on the challenges the kiwifruit industry faced with last year's PSA bacteria outbreak and the Science Media Centre's Peter Griffin looked at the big science stories of the last year and how they were dealt with by the media.

A highlight of the conference was Canadian social media expert and consultant Jesse Desjardins who gave practical advice on how to make the most of social media as a communications tool. His innovative Powerpoint presentations have been viewed by millions of people.

Quoted: Checkpoint, Radio new Zealand

"I was actually surprised that people were looking for someone to blame. Earthquakes are unpredictable. We could have used the money and all the energy wasted in this process to actually increase the understanding of earthquakes instead."
Dr Caroline Holden, GNS seismologist
One of over 5000 signatories to an open letter supporting Italian seismolgists facing trial for manslaughter in the wake of the 2009 L'Aquila Quake

New from the SMC

In the news:

DNA unveils Maori cloak secrets - DNA analysis of 113 feather cloaks - some over 200 years old - has revealed fascinating insights about historical Maori trade and movement.

'Polypill' cuts heart risk - An international study involving New Zealand patients and researchers has shown that a pill containing a combination of treatments has significant impact on heart disease in at-risk individuals.

Otago cancer research - University of Otago scientists have uncovered how a key protein is involved in the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. Research into the protein PAX8, undertaken by Prof Mike Eccles and his team, has just been published in an high-ranking international journal.
Experts respond:

Budget breakdown 2011 - The Ministry of Science and Innovation has released a breakdown of science funding for last weeks 2011 budget. Views and analysis from key individuals, collected last week, are available on the SMC website.

SMC Canada:

Optimistic caution on spinal treatment - The Lancet has published a case study revealing a experimental spinal stimulation treatment that aided a wheelchair-bound man in standing. Expert commentary, while excited and optimistic, cautions that more research is needed to really assess the treatment.


Climate report calls for change - Experts comment on the first report released by the independent Climate Commission, titled: "The Critical Decade: Climate Science, Risks and Responses". The report provides an update on the science of climate change, the potential risks for Australia and the implications for climate policy.

Vaccine adverse events examined - Following reports of several febrile seizures in children after vaccination, the federal government commissioned a review into the national response to the reporting of adverse events caused by the flu vaccine. Following the recent completion of this review, the AusSMC provides expert feedback and links to the report.


Eruption disruption lower than last year -
Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano has erupted spilling ash into the atmosphere. While there is some concern that air travel could be affected, experts contacted by the UK SMC consider that the volcano will not cause as much disruption as Eyjafjallajökull did last year.

Sciblogs highlights

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

Confronting accomodationism - Ken Perrott looks at two different approaches in atheism: vocal and antagonistic 'confrontationists' and milder 'accommodationists'.
Open Parachute

Am I an "Angry Atheist"? - Ken's musings on atheism (above) move Michael Edmond to take a closer look as his own atheistic style.
Molecular Matters

Twisting the truth on vaccination - A wildly inaccurate missive regarding vaccination is straightened out by Alison Campbell.
Bio Blog

Trees and bees the future for our hills? - Peter Kerr looks into the future of New Zealand's farms and raises the possibility that honey might sweeten their outlook.

The Dragon Connection - What is it about dragons that so captures the minds of humans? Brendan Moyle takes and evolutionary (and literary) look at the origins of dragons in our culture.
Chthonic Wildlife Ramblings

The Lady of the Night....Sky - Elf Eldrige has his gaze transfixed on the constellation of Virgo for some stellar star spotting.
Just So Science

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Otago researchers reveal PAX gene's role in cancer: University of Otago researchers have uncovered further evidence that PAX genes members of a small family of genes that play important roles in embryonic development - also allow cancer cells to grow and divide in adult tissue. The gene PAX8 is active in cancer cells and 'silencing' this gene halts cancerous growth of the cells. The researcher suggest that focusing on PAX8 could be "fruitful" for future research into cancer therapies.

Historical threats make for a restrictive society - but NZ's OK: A new international study shows that the more threats a society has been exposed to, such as territorial conflicts, high population density, natural disasters and resource scarcity, the more likely they are to be a restrictive society today, with strict social norms and a low tolerance of deviance. New Zealand was included in the 33 countries analysed and was given a low social 'tightness' score confirming the laid-back, easygoing stereotype of Kiwi society.

Kiwifruit goes head-to-head with pills for Vitamin C: University of Otago, Christchurch, researchers have found that a natural fruit source of vitamin C - kiwifruit - is vastly superior to a purified supplement form. The researchers found that in mice eating kiwifruit, vitamin C uptake was five times as effective as in those given a purified supplement form. They have just started trials in humans to see if the same important nutritional effect occurs. The mouse study was recently published in the highest ranking journal for human nutrition research.
American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, .

Cultured men happier: Men who visit art galleries, museums, and the theatre regularly tend to enjoy better health and are more satisfied with life. A new study found that both men and women who play musical instruments, paint or visit the theatre or museums felt in better health, enjoyed life more, and were less likely to be anxious or depressed then people who do not participate in cultural activities. Interestingly, the effect was most pronounced in men who were interested in watching and looking at culture rather than doing creative or active cultural activities themselves.
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Why caffeine can reduce fertility: Coffee might be off the menu if you are trying for a baby New animal research shows that caffeine reduces muscle activity in the Fallopian tubes that carry eggs from female's ovaries to her womb. Caffeine stops the actions specialised cells which coordinate tube contractions and when these cells are are inhibited, eggs can't move down the tubes. The research provides an explanation of how caffeine influences a womans chances of getting pregnant.
British Journal of Pharmacology

Tinted glasses offer real migraine relief: A new brain imaging study has show that tinted lenses decrease the impact of migraine. Participants wearing personalised chromatic lenses experienced significantly less discomfort (reduced by about 70%) when subjected to migraine triggering visual stimuli and showed less brain migraine-like brain activity in fMRI scans.

Rethinking plant extinction risk: The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species describes the conservation status of various species of animals. They're now also including plants in their lists and the picture they present is dramatic -- according to recent estimates, around 20 percent of flowering plants are at risk of extinction. Now, however, new research suggests that the criteria for assessing extinction risk in plants should be reconsidered. The study shows that plant populations do not behave the same way as animals and suggests that new criteria be developed for plants.

UN body slams metal recycling: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is about to release a report condemning the the lack of metal recycling globally. Less than one-third of 60 important metals have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 percent and more than half are under 1 percent, according to a new UNEP report being released in London and Brussels Thursday. The report declares that smarter product designs, support for waste management schemes, and encouraging consumers not to 'squirrel away' old electronic goods in drawers and closets could help boost recycling of metals world-wide and pave the way for a green economy.
Recycling rates of metals: a status report

Insects, some like it hot: How might global warming influence insect populations? To answer this question a team of researchers analysed the impact of experimental temperature changes on a population of crickets. They found that shift from 26°C to 33°C led to a 66% increase in reproduction. Higher temperatures also made the crickets more susceptible to some pathogens but less susceptible to others. The authors highlight the unpredictable outcomes of increasing temperatures due to climate change and note sudden increases or decreases in insect populations can have wide ranging ramifications for ecosystems.
Journal of Experimental Biology

Soil warming and carbon - good news, bad news: The warming of soil due to climate change may release extra carbon from the soil, but the hotter temperatures also increase plant growth and carbon capture. An experimental study found that artificially heated forest soil released more carbon than usual into the atmosphere. However the heating also stimulated plant growth which almost offset carbon loss over a 7 year period. The empirical study has wide reaching implications for climate prediction models and carbon trading schemes.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Cleaner groundwater using new chemical membrane: Researchers have designed a double membrane that can neutralize water contaminants. The top membrane provides glucose and enzymes to generate initial chemical reactants. The bottom, iron-loaded membrane completes the reaction to break down organic compounds such as pesticides and degreasing solvents. Though the membranes were developed and tested for environmental applications, the technique could also be used to kill bacteria or inactivate viruses within a water supply, the authors suggest.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

When it comes drinking, cats and dogs aren't so different: Although it has been suggested that cats and dogs lap water differently, new research finds that the both species use the same technique to lap up liquids with their tongue. High speed film shows how the dog takes advantage of surface tension to lap water up into it mouth, rather than scooping it up in a spoon-like fashion- as has been suggested in the past. High speed X-ray video confirms the findings and reveals how dogs move the water the rough their oral cavity as the drink. Video available.
Royal Society Biology Letters

Blind 'see' environment using echos: A new study has shed light on how blind people, like bats, can use sound to 'see' their environment. Listening to the echos of soft clicks, blind participants were able to identify objects in their environment, such as buildings, cars and power poles. They could still identify particular objects when these sounds were specially recorded and played back to them in a brain scanner. Simultaneous imaging showed that the blind participants used 'visual' parts of the brain when processing the sounds, revealing new information about how blind people interpret the world.

Scientists detect Earth-equivalent amount of water in the moon: The moon has much more water than previously thought, according to new research. A new study has found that inclusions of magma trapped within crystals collected during the Apollo 17 mission contain 100 times more water than earlier measurements. These results could markedly change the prevailing theory about the Moon's origin.

Babies use 'sophisticated' reasoning in predictions: Twelve-month-old infants have a surprisingly sophisticated ability to take in a complex visual scene and make predictions about it, researchers report. A new study has shown that babies use "pure reasoning," which involves combining different sources of information, guided by abstract knowledge, to make predictions about events they've never directly experienced.

Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week's policy news :

MAF fights over pork - MAF will be defending in court its decision to allow imported uncooked pork from Canada, the EU, Mexico and the USA - locations where the NZ industry says the disease Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) is present.

Nation-length cycleway gets funding - Included in the 2011 budget was a $1.5m package for DoC to complete a cycleway from Cape Rienga to Bluff. Cyclist Sarah Ulmer has been named as the official ambassador of the project.

NZ to join elite geothermal partnership - Minister for Science and Innovation Wayne Mapp announced New Zealand is to seek membership of the International Partnership for Geothermal Technology (IPGT). The partnership group aims to develop advanced, cost-effective geothermal energy technologies through international research co-operation.

Broadband deal reached - The New Zealand government has finalised a deal with telecom to provide ultra fast broadband to the majority of New Zealanders. Health Minister Tony Ryall has backed the plan, stating that the network will be boost to health services.

New census date - The next New Zealand Census will be held in March 2013, Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson announced today. The 2011 Census was postponed after Christchurch's 22 February earthquake.

Upcoming sci-tech events

New Zealand's Future Prosperity: Perceptions of a Scientist - Lecture by Sir Paul Callaghan - 31 May, Auckland.

Towards better use of evidence in policy formation - Seminar by Sir Peter Gluckman - 1 June, Wellington.

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


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