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Science Media Centre Update Issue 145

Issue 145 August 12 - 18

In This Issue

Smarter meters

Food insecurity

Moon Spooned

New from the SMC

Sciblogs highlights

Research highlights

Policy updates

Sci-tech events

Quick Links

SMC Alerts

Media Registration
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What the frac(k) is the problem?
Hydraulic fracturing - a technology commonly known as "fraccing" or "fracking" - widely used in the oil and gas industry overseas has recently triggered some controversy in New Zealand, with critics raising questions over potential environmental impacts.

Though the technology has not long been used in New Zealand, it is expected to be a key part of some future coal seam gas extraction projects, as well as conventional oil and gas extraction.

The technology is already being widely used across the Tasman - where a similar environmental debate has been gathering momentum. The SMC went to Australian scientists to get their views on fracking.

Dr Gavin Mudd, Lecturer in Environmental Engineering, Monash University said fracking had been around for decades in oil and gas industry, but only in the past two decades has it been applied to coal seam gas projects on an increasing scale.

"The process does deserve significant environmental attention due to the potential severity of long-term groundwater impacts. Comparing the impacts entirely depends on what you compare it to - such as normal coal mining and energy production, conventional gas, baseload solar thermal or hydro-electricity," he said.

Local scientists have been cautious in commenting on fracking - its methods and environmental impacts, because those who are knowledgeable on it have close links to the energy industry. The industry itself has been vocal in downplaying concerns over fracking, calling for arguments based on "real evidence".

Fracking is also generating headlines in the US, where a report just released by the Department of Energy claims the environmental impacts of fracking have exaggerated.

How fracking works...source: ProPublica

Commissioner calls for smarter meters
New Zealand needs to up its game in developing smart meters for use in the electricity industry, according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright.

She told the Commerce Select Committee this week that standardization among smart meters was necessary to ensure the industry could in future better manage electricity usage across the country, and prepare for rolling out new technologies such as electric cars.

"My main message is that smart meters don't need to be identical in every respect, but that standardisation of key features is urgently required if we are to achieve a smart grid," Dr Wright told the committee.

The Commissioner was updating the committee on a previous report on smart meters issued in 2009. Her update is summarized here and a copy of her presentation to the committee can be found here.

On the science radar

Artificial life, heat seeking bats, micro robots, biological power lines, toxic personalities and the end of drink-spiking?

Food insecurity concerns grow
The price of milk in New Zealand will be the subject of a Parliamentary Commerce select committee enquiry. The decision comes as debate rages over the rising price of staple food items.

Statistics New Zealand revealed last month that food priced had increased seven per cent in the last year, with a portion of the increase down to the Government's move last October to increase GST from 12.5 to 15 per cent.

The rising costs of basic food staples has been flagged as an arrea of concern by researchers looking at the impact of food insecurity on public health.

Dr Cliona Ni Mhurchu, programme leader in nutrition and physical activity at the Clinical Trials Research Unit of the University of Auckland, said most recent national data (from 2002) showed that food insecurity was an issue for 20-22% of New Zealand households with children, with higher rates among Pacific peoples and Maori.

"While much focus is directed towards tackling problems of obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases, there remains a substantial number of people in New Zealand who do not have sufficient nutritious food to eat, and are classified as food insecure."

Her colleague at the University of Auckland, Dr Nikki Turner said inadequate incomes among many families remained the central issue.

"Nutrition has profound effect on the physical, mental and developmental outcome of the child," said Dr Turner, senior lecturer in the Division of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland and health spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group.

"A poor diet affects a child's immune system, making them more prone to infections and, paradoxically, obesity, and developmentally makes it harder to concentrate, focus and learn."

The SMC rounded-up comment from a number of researchers on food insecurity - you can read it here.

Ken Ring lunacy gets spooned
The media coverage of 'moon man' Ken Ring's theories has been given the dubious honour of the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics Society's award for poor journalism.

The society awarded the Spoon for "journalistic gullibility" to all news media and commentators who who took Mr Ring's earthquake prediction claims at face value.

Ken Rings theories that earthquakes could be predicted by lunar patterns, while completely unscientific, attracted much media attention.

Skeptics NZ media commentator Vicki Hyde said,

"We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual,"

"Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession...they did us all a disservice."

Regarding the moon man media circus, several news personalities were singled out by the society including: Mark Sainsbury (Close Up), John Campbell (Campbell Live), Marcus Lush (Radio Live), Chloe Johnson (Herald on Sunday) and Brian Edwards (Media Blog).

The Skeptics also commended several journalists for critical thinking with their Bravo awards. Bravos went to Janna Sherman (Greymouth Star) for critical coverage of Ken Ring and to Philip Matthews (Marlborough Express) for being direct about the science on 1080 poison.

You can read the full awards media release here (includes links to coverage).

Quoted: Waikato Times

" Scientists and engineers are the people who push back the frontiers of understanding and then translate the new knowledge and technologies for everyday use. "

Prof Jacqueline Rowarth, Massey University

New from the SMC

In the News:

Report highlights Hauraki pollution: The Hauraki Gulf is suffering from extensive environmental degradation due to a variety of factors, according to a report released this week.
Long working hours linked to drinking problems: People who work long hours are more likely to have drinking problems involving alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, according a to a new study.

Reflections on science:

Scientist, politician, patriot: Writing for the New York Times, Cornelia Dean looks at a new US initiative aiming to get scientists out of the lab and into politics.

Experts Respond:

Food insecurity: In light of record inflation, growing unease about the price of milk and rising food costs globally, nutrition experts examine the impact of food insecurity on the most vulnerable members of society,

Riot psychology: Following this week's riots in UK, experts explain the psychological and sociological background to riots - and how authorities can effectively respond.

Sciblogs highlights

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

Anthropogenic CO2 Far Exceeds Volcanic - Bryan Walker puts a recurring climate change argument to rest for once and for all (til next time).
Hot topic

When abstract or conclusions aren't accurate or enough - Perhaps summaries are sometimes too simplified to truly grasp core of a research paper, suggests Grant Jacobs.
Code for life

What foresight animal are you? - Foresight specalist and latest addition to SciBlogs, Robert Hickson, asks, 'are you a hedgehog, fox or fly?'

As we build our world we build our minds - Guest blogger Matt Boyd from Victoria University describes how our biology collides with our surroundings to make us who we are.
Guest Work

Sunday Spinelessness - A visit from a queen - A royal visit gets David Winter musing about bumble bees and their winter habits.
The Atavism

Research highlights

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

MS genetics study offers new leads: A large, international study has identified many new genetic variations linked to multiple sclerosis (MS). The study, which included New Zealand researchers and patients, provides new clues to the mechanisms underlying this complex neurodegenerative disorder. Several known genetic factors were confirmed but new leads were also identified, suggesting novel targets for therapy.

Electronic skin: An ultra-thin electronic which device attaches to the skin can be used to measure heart rate and other vital signs without the bulky electrodes used in current hospital monitoring. Thinner than a human hair, the device sticks to the skin relably and contains all the apparatus required to record and transmit data. The device could also potentially be used as an electronic bandage to speed up wound healing, burns and other skin conditions, and it could even provide touch sense to prosthetic devices such as artificial legs or arms.

Longer working hours linked to alcohol problems: New research has found that working at least 50 hours a week increases the risk of alcohol problems by up to three times.
The New Zealand research used data from the Christchurch Health and Development Study. Data from more than 1000 participants at ages 25 and 30 showed a significant association between longer working hours and alcohol-related problems.

Decreased antibiotic resistance in organic poultry farms: A new study provides data demonstrating that poultry farms that have transitioned from conventional to organic practices and ceased using antibiotics have significantly lower levels of drug-resistant enterococci bacteria. The study is the first to demonstrate lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria on newly organic farms and suggests that removing antibiotic use from poultry farms can result in immediate and significant reductions in antibiotic resistance for some bacteria.
Environmental Health Perspectives

Picking winning eggs: Changes in the cytoplasm of fertilised mouse eggs can predict whether the fertilized egg will develop successfully, according to a new study. researchers noted that eggs with faster cellular movements and those with a longer interval between movements developed most successfully.The authors suggest that it may be possible to measure these changes in human eggs and predict the success of fertilisation.
Nature Communications

Policy updates

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

Kronic Ban - Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne today announced that he has issued the first temporary class drug notice under the Misuse of Drugs Act that was amended last week, and that all Kronic and other synthetic cannabis products will be off the market by next Wednesday.

Poplar and Willow fund - Regional councils, government and Massey have teamed up to create The New Zealand Poplar & Willow Research Trust, a charitable trust funding research and development in the maintenance and enhancement of poplar and willow trees for soil conservation, river control and sustainable land management.

Chch Rebuild announced - The Christchurch City Council has released its draft recovery plan for the Christchurch central business district. The plan will be available on line from Tuesday 16th August.

Quake report- A technical report on the Canterbury quakes has been published, providing a background on building systems for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury and Christchurch Earthquakes.

Mapping research funded - A total of $4 million has been allocated to the four-year Land Cover Research Programme. The research programme aims to provide vital information about our rural and urban environment for the natural resources sector.

Upcoming sci-tech events

The Mysterious Maya - 2011 RSNZ Aronui Lecture tour - Public lecture by Prof Norman Hammond - 16 August, Napier; 18 August, Wellington; 19 August Friday.

Predicting daily fishing success -The assessment of lunar and indigenous fishing calendars - Auckland statistics lecture - 16 August, Auckland.

Collision course! Whales and Shipping - presentation by Dr David Wiley - 17 August, Wellington.

The fetus and newborn: Critical gourmands - lecture by Sir Peter Gluckman - 18 August, Auckalnd.

Inspirational New Zealander and medical device inventor - Public Lecture by Sir Ray Avery - 18 August, Wellington.

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

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