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SMC Bulletin - Marsden Fund awards $85m

Marsden Fund awards $85m
A total of 136 research projects, ranging from virtual pregnancy to studying volcanoes from a ‘waka-lab’, have been given a funding boost in the latest round of the Marsden Fund.

The fund, managed by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government, awarded $85.6 million (excluding GST) to the three-year long projects, 53 of which are by early-career researchers.
Projects span a range of national and international issues: from a longitudinal study of self-harm and suicidal behaviour in New Zealand youth to building a better ‘immune system’ for software, and from exploring the quantum entanglement of individual atoms to examining the survival of life in the harsh conditions of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.
Marsden Fund Council Chair Professor David Bilkey was pleased to see steadily increasing representation of women and Māori amongst the successful researchers.
“It is also gratifying that Marsden Fund applicants who identify as female or Māori have been as successful as male and non-Māori applicants over the past five years,” he said.
There was a strong engagement with mātauranga Māori in applications, he said. “These range from a study of Māori responses to 20th century welfare policies to the use of a waka-based craft to access and investigate remote volcanoes.”
Volcanologist Ian Schipper from Victoria University has been awarded $928,000 to build a mobile volcano observatory in Melanesia using modern waka to study volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Dr Alys Clark, from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and Dr Jo James, from the University of Auckland, were awarded $954,000 for an international research project to study how changes in the blood flow affect a mother’s ability to nourish her baby, RNZ reported.
The University of Otago received the largest funding boost yet, securing $28.5m for 41 projects, including how judicial questions influence jurors, whale evolution, and understanding men’s mental health.
More about the grants can be found here, and a selection of the news coverage found on theSMC website.

Quoted: Stuff
"The legal and regulatory framework is not fit for purpose – it wasn't future-proofed.

"It's a bit like saying, 'We want to reduce fuel use, but you're not allowed to drive a Tesla because electric cars weren't invented in 1996'."
Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Professor Juliet Gerrard on the legislation around genetic engineering.

Don't bank on seed banking
Traditional seed banking will fail to save a third of the world’s tree species from extinction, according to research from one of the world’s largest seed banks.

Storing seeds ‘ex-situ’ (away from their natural habitat) serves as a conservation insurance policy in case of disaster. However, this new research shows vast numbers of trees have ‘recalcitrant seeds’ that can’t survive the most common preservation technique - drying and freezing.
Lead author Dr Sarah Wyse, who now works in New Zealand at the Bio-Protection Research Centre, says one in five New Zealand native trees and shrubs have recalcitrant seeds – including tōtara, rimu, tawa and swamp maire. Kauri are also affected as, while their seeds can be frozen, they don’t last beyond 10 years in storage.

One alternative way to store seeds is through cryopreservation, but this is time-consuming and expensive as it requires liquid nitrogen to freeze the seed quickly before ice can form.

AgResearch senior scientist and director of the Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, Doctor Kioumars Ghamkhar told Newsroom that the paper highlighted some key limitations of traditional seed banks.

"There are more than 1200 seed banks around the world, and for many of these the economic cost of cryopreservation may be too high. Therefore more frequent regeneration of the stored seed supply – by growing to a plant to create more seed – becomes important."

It also might not even work for all plants. "For some species such as kauri," Dr Nari Williams, a plant pathologist at Scion told the NZ Herald, "freezing provides a medium-term option for storing seed and maintaining genetic diversity, but there is a lot of uncertainty around the long-term viability of stored seed."

Dr Wyse says we need to invest in finding alternative ways to conserve these trees, otherwise, we'll lose them. She told Newshub: "If we are serious about wanting to save our unique trees, we need to do everything we can to save them in their natural environment, because other methods may simply not work."
The SMC gathered expert reaction on the study.

Meningococcal W on the rise
A resurgence of meningitis cases, including a particularly virulent strain of the disease, has triggered the Ministry of Health to put GPs on high alert, and Pharmac to consider making vaccines for the disease the more available.

A rare strain of meningococcal disease - serotype W - has killed six people this year, causing the Ministry of Health to send out a directive on Tuesday asking doctors and emergency departments to be on alert for symptoms.

“The numbers of cases caused by this strain have doubled since 2017 from 12 to 24 so far," Dr Helen Petousis-Harris from the Immunisation Advisory Centre told Stuff. She said the W strain "does not normally dominate our NZ meningococcal landscape" but that this particular strain "affects all ages and appears to be super virulent".

However, even though the occurrence of the W strain is particularly deadly, it still only accounts for about a quarter of meningitis cases this year, with meningococcal B still accounting for about two-thirds of cases, according to Dr Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre.

Since the meningococcal B epidemic in the 90s and 00s, no meningococcal vaccines have been on the immunisation schedule, but some have been available for private purchase. But on Wednesday afternoon, Pharmac confirmed its clinical advisors had recommended funding the new meningococcal B (MenB) vaccine Bexsero for infants and high-risk groups, but gave no indication on when this might occur.

The Ministry of Health has approved the use of Bexsero and the vaccine's manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline has applied for Pharmac to fund it.

Vaccinations for the other strains are currently available for private purchase, including one that protects against serogroup C, and another that covers all four other strains: A, C, Y and W.

Dr Turner updated GPs about the situation in New Zealand Doctor on Thursday, giving advice about the availability of different vaccines and in what circumstances they are funded.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the warning.

Policy news & developments

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