SMC Heads-Up: Evidence use in Govt, Fukushima's Ice Wall, how political polls work
Issue 247 6 - 12 September 2013
Gluckman on use of evidence in Govt
The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, says there is "little consistency" in the use and respect for research-derived evidence in government and has called for a more systematic use of it in policy formation and implementation.
Sir Peter this week released the report The Role of Evidence in Policy Formation and Implementation, which included an audit of government departments to see how many scientifically trained advisors they have in-house, their processes around use of scientific evidence and whether they have a departmental science advisor.
He also looked at protocols in place for seeking scientific advice and the practice of peer review in Government-commissioned research.
"Worryingly, some officials had limited understanding of the scientific process of knowledge production, or were uncertain about it. In addition, they were not clear on how research-based evidence could be used to support policy processes," he writes.
"Rather, it seemed that some preferred to work from their own beliefs or rely on their own experience. At its extreme, I find this deficiency to be unacceptable. In part, I think these deficits reflect the dire need to build some basic competencies in research methodologies and critical appraisal skills across the public service, and to bolster the leadership ranks with people formally trained in the relevant disciplines."
His recommendations include:
• The establishment of government-wide formal protocols to guide policy makers in sourcing quality research-based advice.
• The appointment of Departmental Science Ad- visors to major ministries.
Sir Peter's report can be downloaded here.
What was big in science news this week...
Chilling solution for Fukushima
Japan's government will pour $500 million into an attempt to contain and treat contaminated water at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after revelations last month that large volumes of radioactive water continue to leak into the ocean.
The plan involves surround the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant with a mile-long subterranean wall of ice, a technique that has been used in the mining industry as a way to prevent groundwater seeping into mines.
But will the plan work for TEPCO, the much-criticised energy company struggling to stabilise Fukushima?
Our colleagues at the UK SMC rounded up reaction from experts:
Professor Neil Hyatt, Professor of Radioactive Waste Management, University of Sheffield, said:
"The idea of the freeze wall concept is to chill a salt water solution below the melting point of ice and then pump this through underground pipes. This causes the local groundwater to freeze, forming a barrier to the movement of contaminated ground water. A similar process is used in underground uranium mining, to prevent flooding of a working area at depth, so the basic engineering principles are quite well understood. However, this is a very energy intensive process to maintain, so there will need to be careful design and trial work to produce an effective barrier that minimises energy demand."
Professor Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering, Royal Berkshire Hospital, said:
"The step being taken by TEPCO to freeze the ground in order to prevent ground water transport of isotopes is certainly an interesting approach. It must be considered a temporary solution since there will be a considerable cost and effort required to freeze the ground and then to keep it frozen. However, factors to take into account will include passage of isotopes through the frozen wall (since it is likely to be porous), passage of isotopes around and underneath the ice wall, and, even if the ice wall is impervious, the contaminated ground water will eventually build up and flow around the barrier.
"Some work has been done to examine the use of frozen ground as containment in non-radioactive applications but there are very many factors which affect its efficacy."
Read their comments in full on the Science Media Centre website.
The intricacies of political polling
If the political polls are to believed, the Australian Labor Party faces a crushing defeat tomorrow when Australians turn out to vote in their Federal election.
Our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre asked Dr Lyndon Walker, a senior lecturer in applied statistics at Swinburne University of Technology, to outline some of the often misunderstood technicalities of polls...
Basics of Polling
Australian political polls are typically conducted by telephone, although larger polling firms also use face-to-face interviews, and some smaller polling firms and news agencies use SMS and internet-based polling. When evaluating the accuracy of a poll, you should consider who conducted it, and how it was conducted. Polling conducted, or paid for, by the parties themselves may not necessarily be as objective as those conducted by independent organisations. The way in which people are selected for a poll can also bias the results of the poll.
Bias - Bias comes from any part of the polling process that causes the poll results to not be representative of the population. One of the common ways this can occur is through selection bias. This is where different groups have different chances of being selected for a poll. For example, older people tend to be under-represented in internet polls since they are less likely to have access to the internet. One of the ways that polling firms try to overcome this is with demographic weighting. The wording and structure of questions can also create bias. For example, a question that gives respondents the opportunity to say "don't know" can give different responses than one where respondents are forced to choose a preference.
Demographic weighting - Demographic weighting is a way of analysing poll data to try to improve the accuracy of the results. It is done by assigning different weights to the respondents in the poll so that the responses of under-represented groups are more heavily weighted than those of over-represented groups. For example, if the population was 50% male, 50% female, but a particular poll was 70% male, 30% female, the responses of the females would be more heavily weighted so that the final results were more representative of the population.
Why do different polls with the same question often have different results?
It is important to remember that a poll is a sample of the Australian population. A different sample of Australians is unlikely to have an identical result, but if the poll has been done well you would expect the results to be similar to one another. This is where a margin of error is useful.
Margin of error - The margin of error provides a likely interval for the percentages in the poll. If the poll has been conducted in an unbiased way, it is likely that the measurement for the population, such as the percentage of people preferring a particular party, will be between that percentage minus the margin of error and that percentage plus the margin of error. For example if a poll suggests a party will get 48% of the vote and the margin of error is 3% then it is very likely that the actual percentage will be between 45% and 51%.
Sample size - Political polls typically have a sample size of about 1000. A larger sample size will result in more precise measurements as it reduces the margin of error. The well reported poll should include a statement of sample size.
Policy news and developments
Radio spectrum details announced
Clean water initiative for low-lying islands
$2.5m injection for new forestry technologies
Exclusion devices for sea lions
$1.5 million into 'whole of family' nutrition
Addressing Pacific climate change
R&D student grants funding
Journos: Getting access to research
The fifth in a series of articles from the new edition of the SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science which is available in full here.
Science news is frequently driven by publications in the major peer-reviewed scientific journals. So for journalists covering science, health and related fields, getting access to research ahead of time is crucial.
Staying in close contact with key scientists and press officers and asking regularly about forthcoming research is a great way to find out what is coming up. However, we appreciate that this approach can be time-consuming and sometimes uneven. Here, the SMC can help.
To help busy journalists navigate the sources below, the Science Media Centre provides a weekly digest of upcoming, embargoed research highlights called the Research Radar. Contact us to sign up.
Many research journals provide free, early access to scientific papers to journalists under embargo. You'll generally be asked by journal publishers to prove your credentials, often with a letter of introduction from your editor. Here are some of the main points of contact:
EurekAlert: An indispensable resource for thousands of journalists worldwide, the EurekAlert portal provides embargoed access to major journals including Science, PLOS ONE, PNAS and Cell Press, as well as press releases from scientific conferences and institutions.
Nature: A prestigious multidisciplinary scientific journal published weekly. Nature has an extensive press portal allowing access to the journal papers, press releases and multimedia resources as well as to related publications such as Nature Geoscience and Nature Genetics.
AlphaGalileo: A web portal providing journalists with access to science-related press releases, journal papers and articles from European research organisations.
Royal Society of London: The 350 year old Royal Society publishes numerous journals such as Proceedings B, its respected biological research journal. Registered journalists can gain embargoed access to journal papers and associated resources.
Medical research: Several major journals publish weekly on
medical science, including UK-based The Lancet and British Medical Journal and US journals The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Wiley offers embargoed press releases from the Cochrane Reviews, the major source of systematic medical reviews.
Journalists can register for full free access to the Cochrane Library database.
Science magazines: Popular science magazines aimed at consumers can also prove good sources of stories for more mainstream audiences. As journalists you can register to receive access ahead of publication to articles in the likes of New Scientist and Scientific American.
Local research: The Royal Society of New Zealand has a stable of journals covering everything from agriculture and botany to geology and zoology. These can be accessed via journal publisher Taylor & Francis on the InformaWorld web portal.
Department of Conservation staff publish regular scientific and technical reports on native species and ecosystems. Journalists can sign up for notifications on the DOC website.
Government-commissioned research reports are regularly posted to the Ministry of Health, Ministry for the Environment, Ministry for Primary Industries and other government sites, usually without prior notification.
A major source for local medical research is the New Zealand Medical Journal, which features articles, letters and papers from health researchers and practitioners on a biweekly basis. Journalists can register for embargoed previews.
Quoted: Australian Associated Press
"It's almost science fiction ... it's phenomenal".
Dad to be Dean on the ovarian tissue grafts that allowed his wife to become pregnant
New from the SMC
SMC moves to new base at
Royal Society HQ:
SMC moves to new base at Royal Society HQ:The SMC office has moved - find out about our new location and where to visit when you come to Wellington.
Fukushima ice wall: Experts on TEPCO's plan to build a subterranean ice wall to contain radioactive water leaking from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Broaband policies and elections: The AusSMC compares the policies of the major Australian political parties around the National Broadband Network.
Super Mario brain boost: Research reveals playing video games could reduce cognitive decline in the elderly. Our UK SMC colleagues gathered reaction to the Nature paper.
Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Ethical Skepticism: Elf Eldridge looks forward to this weekend's Skeptics conference in Wellington and floats the idea of "ethical skepticism".
Warming on Pause?: Explaining the supposed slow-down in global warming
Plastic's fantastic cost - Economist Eric Crampton on Dunedin's growing pile of plastic refuse - and the costs of recycling it.
A toothy issue - Ken Perrott on the dentists who oppose water fluoridation and the campaign they are running against it.
Some of the major research papers that made headlines this week...
Please note: hyperlinks point,
where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
3 SEP: Bovine TB sequencing maps spread: UK scientists have used whole genome sequencing of the microbe that causes bovine tuberculosis to map the spread of the disease across Northern Ireland and track farm-to-farm transmission. By combining the genomic sequences of the bacteria with information about when and where the sample was isolated, in addition to data on the movement of cattle from farm to farm, the researchers were able to build a detailed forensic map of bovine TB spread. The data is being presented at an international conference this week.
Society of General Microbiology
3 SEP: Counting deadly viruses: Scientists have now estimated the total number of unknown viruses in wild mammals at a minimum of 320,000, and urge us go after them before another major pandemic catches us unawares. Close to 70% of emerging viral diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, and influenza, are infections of animals that cross into humans. Collecting evidence of these viruses, or even a majority of them, scientists say, could provide information critical to early detection and mitigation of disease outbreaks in humans.
4 SEP: Yelling at teens makes things worse: A new longitudinal study has found that instead of minimizing teens' problematic behavior, harsh verbal discipline may actually aggravate it. Using harsh verbal discipline, such as shouting, yelling, or insults, with early adolescents can be harmful to them later on, the study found, with an increased rate of depression, conduct problems and delinquency seen over the following year.
4 SEP: Boon from bottom-trawling?: Fishermen have long argued that, despite the technique's reputation for destruction, positive effects from bottom-trawling exist. A new modelling study provides a theoretical basis for such claims and shows which type of seafloor ecosystems it can occur in. Trawling gear can wreak havoc on seafloor life, but the model shows that in certain circumstances, this much-criticized aspect of trawling can alter the seafloor food web to stimulate fish production. The authors call for better understanding of seabed ecosystems to be seen as an integral part of successful fishery management.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B
5 SEP: Anti-aging video games: New evidence suggests that carefully-designed video games may be able to enhance cognitive abilities in the ageing. Researchers tested a group of older adults (60-85 years old) using a specially designed driving game called NeuroRacer. After four weeks of training, these older participants achieved multitasking performance levels higher than those of untrained 20-year olds, and the cognitive gains lasted for at least 6 months after training. *Images and video avail.*
6 SEP: Gut microbes fight obesity: New research shows that gut bacteria from humans can transmit obesity or leanness to mice inoculated with different microbes. Researchers sampled gut bacteria from pairs of human identical twins where one twin was obese and the other lean. They then introduced these bacteria to germ-free mice. Despite being fed identical healthy diets, mice given the obese twins' gut bacteria became obese themselves, while other mice stayed lean. When exposed to 'lean' microbes later on, this obesity-inducing effect could be blocked in obese mice, as long as they were eating a low-fat, high fibre diet. However when diets were changed to high-fat, low fibre, 'lean' microbes were outcompeted by 'obese' microbes in the gut and obese mice remained fat.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• NZ Skeptics Conference - Wellington Sept 6 - 8
• Suicide Prevention conference 2013 - Auckland Sept 10
• Reinventing astronomy with radio telescopes - Wellington, Sept 10
• NZ Immunisation conference - Auckland Sept 11 - 12
• Linking business with academia - Dunedin Sept 13
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.