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SMC Heads-Up: WHO clears the air, Hectors’ decline, SCANZ

Press Release – Science Media Centre

This week it was the World Health Organisation in retreat as it pulled figures that suggested Auckland’s annual average for air quality exceeded the recommended maximum measure and was on par with Tokyo’s – and much worse than Sydney’s.SMC Heads-Up to 6 October: WHO clears the air, Hectors’ decline, SCANZ podcast
Issue 152 September 30 – October 6
WHO clears the air on pollution figures
Last week it was the Times Atlas making an embarrassing backdown after overstating the rate of environmental change due to global warming.
This week it was the World Health Organisation in retreat as it pulled figures that suggested Auckland’s annual average for air quality exceeded the recommended maximum measure and was on par with Tokyo’s – and much worse than Sydney’s.

Pundits and politicians weighed in from all sides to hammer Auckland’s traffic pollution as the Tokyo-Auckland comparison hit news wires, but a strong sceptical note was sounded from the Ministry for the Environment and Environment Minister Nick Smith, who had a copy of the 2010 air quality figures for New Zealand which painted a different picture.

By midday of Wednesday, the WHO was backing down, replacing erroneous data on its website that appears to be the result of pure data entry error and revising the crucial “PM10 rating” of 23 down to 15 – on par with that of San Francisco. Even after fixing the data the WHO continued to spell Dunedin as “Dundedin”.

Such mistakes in data that carry the seal of the WHO are concerning, but not unavoidable and in this case the errors were corrected quickly, though not before some alarming headlines had run. Interestingly, journalists could have picked up the discrepancy by taking a quick look at the underlying 2010 data on the MfE website which the WHO used to compile its index. No one appeared to do that. The SMC asked the WHO what it would be doing to ensure similar mistakes aren’t made in future, but it so far has not responded.

A lesson then that suggests it wise not to take even official data at face value, especially when the data appear to suggest something extraordinary.

Here’s how New Zealand actually compares…

Source: WHO 2010 PM10 figures (graph by SMC)
Source: WHO 2010 PM10 figures (graph by SMC)

On the science radar

Fermilab Teveatron closes, Vit-C caking agent damages, NASA funds space missions, more phenols in organic juice.

Dolphin species decline – global count
Two New Zealanders have hit the headlines at a major conference on Aberdeen, Scotland, with one warning that fishing bykills mean that recovery of the Hector’s dolphin population is unlikely under present protection measures, and the other announcing there are far fewer species on Earth than widely believed.

Associate Professor Mark Costello from Auckland University’s Leigh Marine Laboratory, used the keynote address at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity, to announce greater progress has been made describing the world’s biodiversity than previously thought. There had been speculation about the number of species for hundreds of years, with one recent estimate of more than 8 million, but Prof Costello and colleagues from Trinity College, Dublin, have concluded that there are likely to be just 1.8 to 2.0 million species, and only around 16 percent or 0.3 million are marine.

They predicted that 24 to 31 percent more marine species, and 21 to 29 percent more terrestrial species, remained to be discovered as more than 18,000 species were being described each year, including 2,000 marine species.” With only a modest increase in the rate of discovery, around 1 million new species can be discovered and described in the next 50 years,” said Dr Costello.

And Dr Barbara Maas, head of endangered species conservation for German environmental group NABU International – Foundation for Nature, highlighted research by Dr Liz Slooten, of Otago University that showed the world’s most endangered sea dolphins are sliding towards extinction in the face of damaging fishing methods. New Zealand’s Hector’s dolphins had fallen from 30,000 to around 7000 since nylon fishing nets came into use in the 1970s, and the Maui’s dolphin subspecies was down to fewer than 100 mammals.

According to Dr Slooten, fishing gear is drowning 23 Hector’s dolphins a year on the east coast of the South Island, but the sustainable loss rate is only one dolphin a year. The population would fall by at least a further 14% by 2050.
Invest in science, or else, Aussies told
Australian Academy of Science president Professor Suzanne Cory has called for the government on that side of the Tasman to set up a sovereign fund to support longterm investment in science.

The fund was needed to boost research spending to at least 3 percent of GDP output by 2020: “To create the booms of the future, we need to ramp up our investment in research and innovation,” she said at the National Press Club.

In 2009, Australia was ranked 12th among OECD member countries for its spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP and New Zealand was ranked 27th. In 2010, NZ invested 1.3 percent of GDP in research and development.

SCANZ panel: the state of science media
Some of the country’s leading science journalists sat down to discuss science, journalism and the changing media landscape this week at a Science Communicator’s Association event in Wellington.

You can listen to a recording of the event here.

More on SCANZ, events, how to join etc, here.

Bacterial bivalves conquer Europe
Young New Zealand scientist Bailey Lovett has won the international prize at Helsinki, Finland, in a Euopean contest for researchers aged under 20.

Her project on microbial contamination of greenlip mussels in Southland showed current shellfish-gathering guidelines were unsuitable for the level of faecal contamination washed into the sea by heavy rainfall.

The annual EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS), this year had 130 contestants from 37 countries.New Zealand previously won a prize in 2009.

Quoted: The New Zealand Herald

“You can’t say we are going to have the best scientists in the world, but, by the way, all the news you get is dumbed down.

“It doesn’t correlate.”
On public broadcasting funding
John Barnett, South Pacific Pictures CEO

New from the SMC

In the News:

More than just a sport: Canterbury University sports sociologist Camilla Obel says New Zealand rugby fans need to stop being so staunch and serious, and enjoy watching the All Blacks with some humour – or the nation will be plunged into mourning if we lose.

‘Flesh-eater’ on the rise: New research has found that the incidence of a tissue damaging bacterial infection – necrotising fascitits – is rising in New Zealand. National media have been quick to report on the increases in cases of ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria.

UARS drops in: The defunct six tonne UARS satellite seems to have tracked up the west coast of the South Island and crossed over New Zealand to the north of Auckland before re-entering the atmosphere somewhere in the vicinity of Samoa, according NASA tracking data.

Experts respond:

Water key issue for kiwis: A new report on environmental perceptions shows New Zealanders are pre-occupied with issues of water quality at home – and many of them blame farmers for those problems. Do their views match up with the science?

Anti-inflammatory drugs and cardio risk – Experts comment on new research which highlights the potential risks associated with some pain medications, even at over-the-counter doses.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Art in science – Ken Perrott takes a look at some creative pursuits that have ventured into the world of science.
Open Parachute

Tired of Predictions? Perhaps the answer to pseudo-science lies regulation. Michael Edmonds, toungue firmly in cheek, calls for the establishment of a new association.
Molecular Matters

NASA and the Speed of Light – John Nixon dicusses the latest in photon based data transmission, with particular reference to television broadcasting.
Light My Fibre

Sniffer bees – Airport security may be soon be sporting bees as a way of screening for exotic diseases at the border. Siouxsie Wiles finds out what all the buzz is about.
Infectious Thoughts

Internet games follow the numbers and money – Peter Kerr reports from last week’s Rutherford Innovation Showcase’s Digital Content Forum on the ‘digitainment’ industry growing in New Zealand.

Research highlights

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

Tooth decay bacteria may also trigger strokes: A particular strain of Stretococcus mutans — the key bacterial cause of tooth decay — has been linked to haemorrhagic strokes.
A mouse study has shown that certain types of the bacteria can bind to damaged blood vessels in the mouse brain, and scientists have found that oral bacteria from human stroke patients showed a higher frequency of bacteria producing the same collagen binding protein, compared to patients with non-haemorrhagic strokes or without strokes.
Nature Communications

Size does count: Dozy koalas spring to life during the mating season, when the males begin bellowing. Researchers have discovered the koala bellows are essentially boasting about their size, to attract females and intimidate rivals They found the koala’s larynx had evolved to be pulled deep into the chest cavity — giving their voices a more baritone quality — to the point where the animals could make themselves sound as though their vocal tract was nearly the entire length of their body.
Journal of Experimental Biology

Mercury rising: Humanity’s latest visits to Mercury — the first since the Mariner 10 fly-by nearly three decades ago — have produced a rash of new information on the solar system’s smallest and innermost planet. Among other things, the planet’s surface composition is different from those of the other terrestrial planets, with much more sulphur than the Earth or the Moon. Mercury may have formed from meteorites or cometary dust particles, some researchers have proposed, while others have looked at the oceans of lava that poured out in northern latitudes billions of years ago.

Low B12 levels may impact thinking: Older people with low blood levels of vitamin B12 markers may be more likely to have lower brain volumes and have problems with their thinking skills. Foods that come from animals, including fish, meat, especially liver, milk, eggs and poultry are usual sources of vitamin B12. A Chicago study showed that having high levels of four of five markers for vitamin B12 deficiency was associated with having lower scores on cognitive tests and smaller total brain volume.

Manipulating social dominance: Chinese scientists have succeed in subtly manipulating the brain cells of mice to make them more socially submissive, or more dominant in their own populations. By using a genetically-engineered virus to affect the way neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex worked, they changed the social ranking of mice and said the results suggested that “social rank is plastic and can be tuned”.This was the first direct evidence for the involvement of those neurons in determining social hierarchy.
Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week’s policy news:

New funding for Japan collaboration – Two research projects awarded a total of $1 million in funding will strengthen collaborative research relationships between New Zealand and Japan, Science and Innovation Minister Wayne Mapp said

Hands across the Pacific – Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith and his Chilean counterpart, Maria Ignacia Benitez, reaffirmed a commitment to work together on environmental issues.

Upcoming sci-tech events
Ethnicity-specific features of ‘Athlete’s Heart’ in elite sports – 1 October, Wharewaka, Wellington.
The Role of Agricultural & Horticultural Science and Innovation in the future of New Zealand – NZIAHS Forum – 4 October, Te Papa,Wellington.
NZIAHS Political Forum – National, Labour, Green and ACT parties lay out agriculture policies at NZIAHS 4.30pm 4 October, Te Papa, Wellington.
Maori navigation night – at Carter Observatory with Anaru Reedy (Pana Tinua) – 4 October, Wellington.
2012 Marsden Fund allocations announcements – October 6, Royal Society.
Assessing scientific knowledge about climate change – Dr David Wratt looks at the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment – 6 October, Wellington.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.

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