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SMC Heads-Up: #eqnz, dirty pipe theories, Get off the Grass

SMC Heads-Up: #eqnz, dirty pipe theories and Get off the Grass

Issue 244 16 - 22 August 2013

Quake sets Wellington on edge again

As we were putting the finishing touches on this week's Heads-Up the office started to sway and Professor Shaun Hendy, who was visiting the SMC, joined us in diving under a desk.

The 6.2 magnitude quake that struck at 2.31pm and was centred 10km south east of Seddon at a depth of 8km, has been variously described by Wellingtonians as "crunchy" and "horrible". It was felt all over the country.

"Another severe, damaging quake struck in the afternoon of Friday 16 August. Damage has been reported both sides of the Cook Strait," wrote Geonet's Kevin Fenaughty in an update a few minutes after the quake hit.

Details of the quake, which was initially reported as having a magnitude of 6.9, are available here.

Journalists covering the quake should check in with John Callan, communications manager at GNS Science to find an available duty seismologist for comment. The SMC will be rounding up commentary from earthquake experts and will distribute them to those on our mailing lists.

Coverage from the Herald Online

Coverage from Stuff

Botulism speculation "not helpful"

Theories floated this week on how dangerous bacteria got into Fonterra's production line are wildly far of the mark, according to independent experts and industry groups.

There has been understandable concern over just how the now notorious 'dirty pipe' at the Fonterra Hautapu plant came to contaminate a batch of whey protein with the toxic bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

In the media this week, Farm Consultant Frank Rawson offered his views on how the bacteria came to be in the food supply, linking the bacteria back to cow's fed glyphosphate (RoundUp) treated crops, which in turn was the result of over-reliance on GM feed.

He argued that the glyphosphate suppressed 'good' gut bacteria which fight C. botulinum infections in cattle.

"The most likely source is on farm in silage or grains/soy in mixed rations, all of which have glyphosate which stimulates growth of Clostridia and other pathogenic bacteria and fungi" He told Fairfax News.

Read more on NZ Farmers Weekly or Radio NZ.

'Not helpful', 'unfounded'

Responding to the claims in a media release, Dr Steve Merchant, president of the NZ Veterinarian's Association, noted that Mr Rawson was not a registered vet and said his claims were, "speculation and not helpful in assisting the investigation."

"We are dealing with a complex scientific issue," Dr Merchant said, "and we need to bring together the relevant scientific expertise in New Zealand to ensure the investigation leads to a successful resolution."

Independent researchers were also sceptical. Massey University's Dr Heather Hendrickson wrote on Sciblogs, "Rowson's claims of certainty with respect to the source of spores found at Fonterra are unfounded. This organism is found everywhere. If there are increasing populations, then that is worth investigating but short of new data his recent statements appear wildly speculative."

University of Auckland Microbiologist Dr Siouxie Wiles was also critical of the claims, noting on her Infectious Thoughts blog that the strains that typically infect humans are different from those found in cattle. Based on the discrepancy she gave her own speculation, that "Rowson's claim that the source of the Clostridial contamination is linked to glyphosate usage and cattle is highly questionable."

On the science radar this week...

The Hyperloop, killer categorisation, new 'teddy bear' mammal, a masochistic decapitated snake and Danish swimmers safe from testicle-eating fish.

Prof Hendy's call: Get off the Grass!

Theoretical physicist and Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize winner Professor Shaun Hendy has released a new book which gets to the heart of the challenges the country faces in harnessing innovation to stimulate growth.

Get of the Grass progresses many of the theories first floated in Sir Paul Callaghan's 2009 book Wool to Weta, and indeed, the late Sir Paul is a co-author with Hendy of Get off the Grass.

The New Zealand Paradox

The early chapters are a refreshing reminder of where New Zealand went wrong. A graph on page 15 shows how our per capita GDP as a percentage of the OECD fell from around 115 per cent in 1974 to less than 90 per cent in 2010. Meanwhile, Australia's has remained fairly stable over that period now floating above 120 per cent, while the likes of Finland overtook us in 1979 and has rocketed up since then on the back of the success of Nokia and the electronics industry that sprung up around the mobile phone giant.

The slump in per capita GDP comparative to other OECD countries came even as we did all the seemingly right things to improve productivity and economic growth - a laissez-faire approach to growth, deregulation, privatisation and free trade deals. As a result of all of that, New Zealand is now considered one of the best places in the world to do business, is among the least corrupt, most supportive of free trade, respectful of property rights.

But the economic gulf has widened between us and other countries - a $40 billion per annum earnings gap with Australia.

So what did we do wrong? Hendy and Callaghan argue that he didn't invest sufficiently in the biggest driver of longterm economic growth - science, technology and innovation. Other countries did during that period in the 1980s when they too were opening up their economies and many are now reaping the benefits in the form of higher GDP per capita.

The heart of Get off the Grass deals with the contribution science and innovation make to economic growth and looks at ways we can re-imagine our innovation ecosystem to deliver better results. Hendy has studied the measures of innovation, including the output of scientific literature and granting of patents, and discovered that tightly integrated networks of researchers and entrepreneurs generate more of both.

Read SMC Manager Peter Griffin's full review of Get off the Grass here.

When is science ready for primetime

The 2nd in a series of excerpts from the SMC's Desk Guide for Covering Science, which is available in full here.

Often the first time you hear about an interesting area of science is when a press release arrives proclaiming the latest discovery or scientific breakthrough.

But how did the scientists get to this point? Understanding how scientists work can show another side of the story, and may affect how you cover the story.

Scientific method

Scientists deal with uncertainty all the time because they are pushing back the boundaries of what is known. "Breakthroughs" nearly always build on years of incremental progress, with many false starts and dead ends.

Scientists collect data through observation and experiments to test a hypothesis - a potential explanation.

Testing the hypothesis can involve experimentation and observation, the result of which is measurable evidence that scientists can then attempt to reproduce using the same methods. The testing needs to be designed in a way so that the results are objective, to reduce the likelihood of a biased interpretation of the results.

Scientists document everything, not just the results of their experiments, but the methodology they used, so that other scientists can try to replicate the results of the experiments. As such scientists place a lot of emphasis on disclosure of data, so it can be scrutinised by other researchers working in the field.

Uncertainty remains

After scrutinising their results, scientists will determine whether the new evidence supports their hypothesis and write up preliminary findings. The answer, which may eventually be reported in the form of a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal, will add to a growing body of evidence but will rarely be conclusive on its own.


"The only way to make wine cancer-free is to have no alcohol in it. ... There's a cancer risk with the product, no matter what else they put in it."

Prof Doug Sellman, National Addiction Centre, University of Otago on questionable health claims for a new line of NZ wines high in the antioxidant reseveratrol.

New from the SMC

Reflections on Science:

Get off the Grass: Read an excerpt from, and media coverage of the new book by Prof Shaun Hendy and the late Sir Paul Callaghan.

In the News:

Minds for minds:
Autism researchers have launched a new campaign across New Zealand to facilitate understanding and treatment options for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Food safety: In the wake of Fonterra's contamination scare, Adam Dudding takes a big picture look at food safety in New Zealand for the Sunday Star Times.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Who is accountable for this mess? Callaghan Innovation once more faces the wrath of Peter Kerr in the wake of decisions around external contracts for the innovation agency.


Whitebait: more than meets the eye - Amber McEwan get her scientific teeth into New Zealand's iconic "teeny tiny, tasty fish."


What we already know - a tuatara transcriptome - The project aiming to sequence the tuatara genome isn't starting with a blank slate, writes David Winter.

Sequencing the Tuatara Genome

Brain health may be a box of chocolates - Christine Jasoni serves up a sweet taste of the latest research into cognitive decline.

Nervy Nomad

Research highlights

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

Seafloor worms dig up NZ methane: Scientists have discovered a super-charged 'methane seep' in the ocean off New Zealand caused by burrowing worms. The furious stirring up of the seafloor releases large amounts of methane in to the ocean. Fortunately most of released greenhouse gas is gobbled up by a thriving bacterial community "putting the pin back in the methane grenade" and preventing any major methane 'burps' escaping into the atmosphere. Images available.

Limnology and Oceanography

13 AUG: Chch quake dust affecting lung infections?:
New research has examined the links between the the dust from liquefaction (ejecta) and lung infections in Christchurch suburbs in the wake of the Canterbury quakes. Spatial clustering of pneumococcal pneumonia (PP) cases in relation to liquefaction led the authors to conclude that inhalation of ejecta dust may have increased the absolute number of cases of PP, but was unlikely to be a direct cause of infection. They note that the long-term impacts of the dust should be monitored.

Spatial and Spatio-temporal Epidemiology

Climate threat for archaeology: A DOC-commissioned report has examined the potential impact of climate change on archaeological sites, using the Whangarei District as a case study. Approximately one-third of the recorded site locations in coastal areas are already at risk from erosion, flooding and ground instability, and an additional 2.5-10% of archaeological sites might be affected by increased threats due to predicted changes in climate.

Science for Conservation

Antarctic ice age rewrite
: Most evidence indicates that the last ice age in the Southern Hemisphere ended about 18,000 years ago. But now new data from a 3km deep West Antarctic ice core shows that Antarctic warming kicked off at least two, and perhaps four, millennia earlier than previously thought. The research, from an international team including a New Zealander, rewrites Antarctica's climate history -- which until now was largely based on data from the colder Eastern regions of the icy continent.


Antarctic worms eat whale skeletons not shipwrecks:
Experimental studies one the degradation of organic material in the Southern Ocean have uncovered a new species of worm, Oseadax, that feeds on the bones of whale carcasses (whale-fall) on the sea floor. In stark contrast to whale skeletons, wood remains were remarkably well preserved, suggesting the sunken skeletons of early wooden Antarctic ships may remain relatively preserved on the ocean floor.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Looking stroke risk in the eye:
Damage to the retinal blood vessels attributed to hypertension - hypertensive retinopathy - could be a strong predictor of stroke risk, according to new research. Researchers tracked stroke occurrence in 2,907 hypertensive patients over an average of 13 years and found the risk of stroke was 35 percent higher in those with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 137 percent higher in those with moderate or severe hypertensive retinopathy.


Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Local legal high control: Associate Health Minister Todd McClay has today written to all local government authorities calling on them to put in place local rules to control further the sale of 'Legal Highs'.

Climate target: Climate Change Minister Tim Groser has announced New Zealand has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to five per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, under the UN Framework Convention.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Aquatic Science at the Interface -Marine and freshwater science conference - 19-23 August, Hamilton.

Interactions between medicines and food supplements - University of Auckland Winter Lecture series with Prof Gil Hardy - 20 August, Auckland.

What's our energy culture? - Lecture from Dr Janet Stephenson - 21 August, Wellington; 22, Auckland.

Intrepid Journeys - Infection Prevention & Control Nurses College NZNO 2013 Conference - 21-23 August, Palmerston North.

Queenstown Research Week - 24-30 August, Queenstown.

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

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