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Science could be in for shake-up

Science could be in for shake-up

With strong policy commitments on R&D spending, climate change and freshwater quality, science funding and research priorities may change.

Science didn't feature significantly in its own right as an election issue, but numerous science-related issues have been prioritised by Labour, its coalition partner New Zealand First and confidence and supply partner the Green Party.

The most significant change on the cards could be the way in which the Government tries to stimulate private sector research and development efforts, with a 12.5% R&D tax credit set to replace an extensive programme of R&D grants to businesses.

In the run-up to the election, the Science Media Centre collated policy positions on major science related issues ranging from the country's Predator Free 2050 strategy to healthy housing.

In this post election wrap-up on Sciblogs, SMC Director Peter Griffin explores the potential policy changes on the table in five key science-related areas - freshwater quality, climate change, science funding and genetic modification.

Read the full coverage here.

Waves from cosmic collision
The excitement was palpable this week as scientists revealed they had recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars 130 million years ago.


NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

The latest discovery from the LIGO-Virgo collaboration came weeks after the detection of gravitational waves won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The August 17 (US time) event was detected by about 70 ground- and space-based observatories, marking the first time a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and light.
The researchers say the event they observed occurred about 130 million years ago as two neutron stars were in their final moments of orbiting each other. As the stars spiralled closer together, they distorted the surrounding space-time, giving off energy in the form of gravitational waves before smashing into each other.
As they collided, they emitted a “fireball” of gamma rays; the new observations show that heavy elements such as lead and gold are created during these collisions.

University of Auckland astrophysicist Dr JJ Eldridge said the observation was one many astrophysicists "have been waiting for since LIGO made the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015".

“The observations of the kilonova, the explosive afterglow, also confirms something else," Dr Eldridge said. "In the explosion we have seen evidence for large amounts of heavy elements."

"In this particular event, it’s likely that 100s or 1000s of Earth masses of gold and other elements were made. If the rate of neutron stars mergers is as high as we now think, these dying stars are now the source of most of these elements in the Universe.

“We’re all made of stardust, but gold, silver and platinum are made of neutron stardust!"

Victoria University of Wellington's Professor Matt Visser said the parallel detection of the collision in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves gives an independent way of measuring cosmological distances, independent of supernova physics.

"It is expected that this observational technique will quickly become a standard part of mainstream astronomy, we hope to see many more of these events over the lifetime of the LIGO-Virgo project and its successors."

University of Canterbury's Professor David Wiltshire said that "one further cosmic gravitational wave first still awaits us: the merger of a black hole with a neutron star".

"When that happens, it will again open up completely new frontiers for 21st-century astronomy."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the LIGO announcement.

Quoted: NZ Herald
"Sea ice is the biggest annual change on the surface of the planet and plays a huge role in ventilating the deep ocean and delivering heat around the globe.

"But its year-on-year behaviour has become more erratic and we need to understand what is happening to help us predict how it might change in the future."

Niwa marine physicist Dr Natalie Robinson
ahead of this season's work in Antarctica, which may be hampered by a lack of sea ice.

State of atmosphere, climate
The impacts of climate change are already being seen in New Zealand, according to a joint report from the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ.

Released on Thursday, Our Climate and Atmosphere 2017 was a stocktake of the state of global and domestic greenhouse gas emissions and climate measurements.

Key findings of the report were that New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions had risen 51 per cent since 1990, and that road transport had one of the largest leaps in emissions. The South Island's glaicers had lost a quarter of their volume since 1977, while the country had experienced a 1°C temperature increase since 1909.

Government Statistician Liz MacPherson told Newshub that the temperature increase was significant. "For a lot of people that won't sound like much, but when you're talking about our ecosystems which are attuned to really minor changes in temperate, this really is quite significant."

Watch this week's Media Take special on Maori TV featuring SMC Director Peter Griffin and others discuss how media coverage of climate change has evolved.

University of Otago Associate Professor Simon Hales said the main message from the report was that "New Zealand is not living up to its international obligations on climate change".

"We need to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, not increase them."

He said well-designed policies to reduce emissions would have other short-term benefits such as reducing health risks from air pollution and promoting healthy lifestyles.

"Mitigating climate change will have long-term health benefits in New Zealand and globally, by reducing extreme climate events, sea level rise, food and water insecurity and the spread of communicable diseases," Dr Hales said.

"This is especially important for vulnerable Pacific island nations that expect and require New Zealand to support their own efforts to address climate change."

Niwa emeritus researcher Dr Richard McKenzie told RadioLive the report was "a bit of a wake-up call as far as the climate change issues are concerned, it tells us we really have to do something about that".

He said the recovery of the ozone was "a very good news story". "I think what it shows us is that when we have these global man-made problems if we really put our minds to it we can solve the problems."

"We appear to have done it with the ozone question, we haven't done it with the climate change question but we know it can be done so let's get on and do it."

University of Otago Honorary Research Fellow Dr Jim Salinger said the report confirmed that "global warming is alive and well" and that the next Parliament "must accelerate action on climate change".

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the report.


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