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SMC Heads-Up: Flu trends, briefings, stats training

SMC Heads-Up: Predicting flu trends, upcoming SMC briefings, stats training for journos

Issue 268 28 Feb - 6 March 2014

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Staying one step ahead of the 'flu

A new study in the journal Nature describes a model that can successfully predict changes in seasonal human influenza virus from year to year.

The model, developed by German and US researchers, considers the evolutionary advantages of mutations in previous influenza strains, and the frequency of these mutations, to predict the future evolution of current strains.

As described in a Columbia University release, the authors "used Darwin's principle: survival of the fittest. But what determines how fit an influenza virus is? First, they considered innovation: the virus had to keep a high rate of mutations in order to escape from human immune response. But they also included conservation: these mutations must not compromise the essential functions of a virus, such as the correct folding of its proteins.

"Through studying the genomes of the virus, they devised a way to predict which viral strains have the optimal combination of innovation and conservation."

Predicting the make-up of future strains of influenza is critical for vaccine design and the model could play an important role in staying one step ahead of the ever-changing influenza virus.

New Zealand experts contacted by the SMC were positive about the potential of the model:

Dr Sue Huang, Director of the WHO National Influenza Centre and Senior Science Leader, Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR) comments:

"This new study will help to formulate better strategy in selecting vaccine strains in the future by including viral fitness considerations and cross-immunity estimations."

Prof Michael Baker, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

"The test will be whether it can contribute to improved vaccine formulation and vaccine effectiveness. That assessment may take several years to emerge. Either way, the science behind this work will almost certainly improve our ability to prevent and control influenza over the next few years and may also be applicable to other rapidly evolving pathogens."

You can read further expert commentary on the Science Media Centre website.

Science Media SAVVY is coming to Dunedin 27-28 March

Final days for applications!

Apply Now!

Upcoming SMC Briefings: March

Journalists: mark your calendars. The SMC will be hosting two face-to-face media briefings over the coming month in our new facilities in Thorndon, Wellington.

12 March, Wednesday 10 am - IPCC Working Group II and III -climate change briefing with reports' New Zealand authors.

This background briefing will be an opportunity to prepare for the next major releases from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due out in March and April this year. These forthcoming sections of the fifth assessment report will focus on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change on a global and regional scale, including specific considerations for New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific (WGII); and also options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (WGIII).

The briefing will provide a chance to meet New Zealand authors, identify key dates and times for reporters covering the releases and highlight the most important and potentially controversial areas to look out for when the final IPCC statements are made public.

21 March, Friday 10:30 am - "Ask me anything" Q&A withnuclear energy expert Prof Robin Grimes.

Visiting nuclear energy specialist Prof Robin Grimes, the current UK Foreign Office Chief Science Adviser, provided official advice on the 2011 Fukushima disaster and has been outspoken on nuclear energy in the context of climate change. He will make himself available for this informal roundtable to answer journalists' questions on nuclear energy's future, hazard, risk, technological innovation, and lessons from Fukushima.

Online and phone access will be available for reporters who cannot attend in person, and recordings will be posted to our website afterwards for public viewing.

Registration details for these briefings will be distributed to media in the next two weeks. For more information, contact Dacia Herbulock at the SMC.

On the science radar this week...

Spectacular solar flare, getting zapped out of a coma, pomegranate batteries, the new particle on the block and the mummified murder.

On the job stats training for journos

The University of Auckland's Department of Statistics and training body Competenz are spearheading an effort to offer workplace training in statistical literacy.

A working group will examine how a unit standard could be offered as part of the National Diploma in Applied Journalism that is completed on the job.

Journalists are bombarded by statistics everyday and dealing with issues such as statistical probability and relative risk can be problematic, particularly for science-related stories.

The workplace training would bring journalists in the newsroom up to speed on statistical principles and methods and acquaint them with useful tools. As data journalism becomes an increasingly important element of news coverage, a solid grounding in statistics and how to interpret them will be more valuable than ever.

Julie Middleton, communications advisor to the University of Auckland Department of Statistics, joins a panel of journalists, statistics experts and training professional that will develop the unit standard.

The University's StatsChat blog, led by statistician Professor Thomas Lumley, has become a key resource for statistical literacy, often playing a watchdog role when the media misuses statistics.

Wrote Middleton on StatsChat: "I'll let you know from time to time how we're going - and may well ask for your help in finding good case studies and Excel-based data sets to help journalists become familiar with statistical thinking and tools (Excel is a rarity in New Zealand newsrooms)."

Note: The second edition of the Science Media Centre's Desk Guide for Covering Science features a chapter on dealing with statistics and can be downloaded here.

Quoted: The Press

"It may be that eventually we will be faced with some tough decisions about whether we move species in order to save them or whether we do nothing and let them go extinct."

University of Auckland's Dr James Russell onisland sanctuaries and rising sea levels.

Will Hine: no chilling out in Antarctica

Every summer, a handful of journalists descend on Scott Base in Antarctica joining the scientists, military and civilian personnel travelling down there to keep New Zealand's operations running and to carry out important scientific research.

The media trips, sponsored by Antarctica New Zealand, have produced some great journalism over the years. But this year's seasonal visit seemed to get higher than normal profile thanks to the work of TVNZ science reporter Will Hine and the prominence his news reports were given across TVNZ's news programmes from Breakfast to One News.

Several of Hine's pieces focussed on science underway down there, from efforts to dart killer whales to obtain tissue samples to learn more about their diet, to Waikato University's Professor Craig Cary's use of aerial drones to undertake research in the Dry Valleys. The reports were very well put together, which is a credit to Hine and his camera operator Brent Walters, but also the scientists and logistical personnel who assisted the TVNZ team to shoot in challenging conditions.

"It was pretty full-on with long days but absolutely worth the effort," Hine said of the trip.

Credit to TVNZ for giving the coverage a decent run over several weeks and to Antarctica New Zealand for continuing the programme, which helps put in context the wide range of science-related issues New Zealanders are exploring in Antarctica, the health of which is increasingly understood as being related to the broader state of our oceans, marine life and climate. A temporary shutdown of US Government programmes late last year threatened to impact on all science taking place in Antarctica. But it appears much of the research that was planned was able to be undertaken after all.

Another New Zealand Navy-hosted expedition including journalists such as TVNZ's Renee Graham and Fairfax's Michael Fox, is currently underway to the sub Antarctic islands, but this week had to divert briefly to Stewart Island due to bad weather and 14-16 metre high waves pounding the ship.

Graham told TVNZ: "The sounds were incredible. Like out of a movie. Booming and rumbling. The movements were incredibly violent."

Which goes to show that heading to the deep south is no junket - but hard and often dangerous work for the journalists involved!

A collection of links to Will Hine's reports from Antarctica can be found here.

Policy news and developments

Illegal fishing: The government this week ratified an international fisheries agreement designed to fight illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

R&D Funding: Callaghan Innovaiton has announced the 19 high tech businesses recieving Research & Development Growth Grants worth $59 million over three years.

Ryall retires: Tony Ryall, MP for Bay of Plenty and Minister of Health and State Owned Enterprises, has announced he will retire from politics at the next election.

Horowhenua clean-up: Environment Minister Amy Adams has today announced the Government will invest $540,000 towards cleaning up Lake Horowhenua. Combine with contibutions from local government and industry, the total funding for the project will be $1.27 million.

Drilling regs: New regulations under the EEZ Act will class exploratory oil and gas drilling as "non-notified discretionary", requiring consent but not public consultation.

ETS changes: The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is being becoming more transparent, allowing buyers and sellers of carbon units to see where the unit has come from and how the it was generated.

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Flu futures: New Zealand researchers comment on a new model which could predicted the make up of future flu stains.

Geoengineering: Experts comment on an new study warning against the impact technological fixes to combat harmful effects of climate changes.

Winter deaths:
Research stating that climate warming will not reduce cold-related deaths gets fact-checked by experts.

Reflections on Science:

WMO in NZ: The president of the World Meteorological Organization, Dr David Grimes, talks to the SMC about extreme weather events, climate change adaptation and priorities for Antarctic climate research.

Sciblogs highlights

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

Pseudoscience in your supermarket - Pseudoscience extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial, writes Ken Perrott.

Open Parachute

Dream Weaver: why can't you get me through the night? - Neuroscientist Christine Jasoni explores the science behind remembering our dreams (or not).

The Nervy Nomad

Why you should care about plasticity - Genes aren't the be-all-end-all, writes Peter Dearden, your early environment may have a huge impact on your later health.

Southern Genes

Research highlights

Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

Blame TV dinners, not TV: Television viewing has been linked to obesity, but studies tracking children's daily movement with accelerometers have found it's not just sedentary behaviour that's to blame. A University of Auckland study looking at food and drink consumption during different kinds of screen-time has found that pre-teen boys consistently chow down on more high-energy foods (read: junk food) when parked in front of the TV, compared to video games or recreational computer use.


Heart hugging monitor: A silicon sheath that can completely envelope a rabbit heart has been developed by US researchers. The elastic multifunctional membrane is capable of measuring various physiological parameters simultaneously across the entire surface of an isolated beating heart, something that has not been possible in the past. Images and video available.

Nature Communications

Supermarket receipts - an unknown source of BPA? Study participants who handled receipts printed on thermal paper continuously for 2 hours without gloves had an increase in urine bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations compared to when they wore gloves, according to a new research. Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) has been associated with adverse health outcomes, but the clinical implications chronic skin exposure are unknown. The findings may be particularly relevant people such as cashiers, who handle receipts 40 or more hours per week.However, independent experts are sceptical .


Marine toxins fingered in ancient stranding cold case:Researchers have unearthed a 50 million year old fossil site which preserves the skeletons of over 40 of whales and other marine vertebrates in four distinct layers, indicating a repeated, but similar cause of death. Skeletal orientation and condition point to mortality at sea, prior to burial on a tidal flat. The only explanation for such repeated mass strandings today are toxins from algal blooms, suggesting that fossil accumulations of these events may be more common than previously thought.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Hot days more common despite 'slowdown': There has been a continued increase in the number of extreme heat days over land since 1997 - despite recent slowdown in global average surface temperature.The researchers behind the findings note that the increase in extreme heat events is more relevant for impacts and adaptation than global average temperatures. The article is part of a special focus in Nature Climate Change entitled 'Recent slowdown in global warming' featuring several articles exploring the the slowdown and the public perception thereof.

Nature Climate Change

Upcoming sci-tech events

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

The History of Gangs in New Zealand - Public Seminar from Dr Jarrod Gilbert - 5 March, Wellington.

Communicating Science - Dacia Herbulock from the SMC will be speaking about challenges and opportunities in science communication as part of the Science Express series at Te Papa - 6 March, Wellington.

Brain Awareness week - Numerous public lectures and events will be taking place up and down the country - 10-16 March, various centres.

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