Longevity advice needs weighing against the prospect of being poisoned by a nerve agent

There’s conflicting news today for readers who might enjoy a snifter or two before dinner after a hard day in the lab or out in the field

The conflict is summed up in two headlines at scimex:

* Beer and wine makes you feel fine after nerve agent poisoning

 *EXPERT REACTION: Cut the booze to fewer than 10 drinks a week to avoid an early death

The first item reports on a study published in eNeuro which says a compound found in trace amounts in alcoholic beverages is more effective at combating seizures in rats exposed to an organophosphate nerve agent than the current recommended treatment,

Left untreated, organophosphate poisoning can lead to severe breathing and heart complications. It is also known to cause seizures. Some patients are resistant to treatment with the anti-anxiety drug diazepam, the first line of defense for such poisoning, and its effectiveness decreases the longer the seizure lasts.

Asheebo Rojas and colleagues compared the ability of two treatments — diazepam and the anesthetic urethane (ethyl carbamate), commonly formed in trace amounts during fermentation of beer and wine from the reaction of urea and ethanol — to interrupt seizures in rats exposed to the organophosphate diisopropyl fluorophosphate.

The researchers found urethane to be more effective than diazepam, suppressing seizures for multiple days and accelerating recovery of weight lost while protecting the rats from cell loss in the hippocampus.

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Science Board appointment announced

Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith has announced the appointment of Dr Andrew McLeod to the Science Board for a term of three years

The Science Board is responsible for investing funding used predominantly by research organisations for science, technology, research, and related activities.

Dr McLeod studied Pharmacy at Otago University before completing his PhD and post-doctoral studies in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of California in San Francisco. He has held senior management positions at Douglas Pharmaceuticals, Dow Pharmaceutical Sciences and Douglas Nutrition Ltd.

Currently, Dr McLeod is leading the medical division of Douglas Pharmaceuticals Global Dermatology Franchise in New Zealand.

“More information on the Science Board can be found on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s website.

Ten new community science projects funded in South Auckland

Ten new community science projects, from dung beetles to beehive monitoring, are getting under way in South Auckland.

The projects are aimed at a range of participants – primary and secondary school students, community and iwi groups – who collaborate with scientists from universities and research organisations.

The ten 2017 projects have been awarded up to $20,000 each. They are being funded as part of the SouthSci initiative, the South Auckland pilot of the NZ Government’s Participatory Science Platform.

SouthSci project manager Dr Sarah Morgan says the new projects are excellent examples of local communities engaging with science and technology as equal partners.

Nick Pattison, a SouthSci project alumnus, now Director of STEM at Kauri Flats School, said:

“Traditional citizen science has not had a lot of relevance for South Auckland with a history of science organisations coming in to study and test, but not building long-term relationships with us. In stark contrast, these projects put the power and ownership back in our hands, which we think is directly linked to their success.”

The projects include:

* Papakura High School in collaboration with Massey University, investigating whether food waste can be used to create biochar that enhances plant growth and sequesters carbon

* Tangaroa College having established beehives with the help of BeesThingz, investigating whether they can predict beehive health by using sensors to monitor hives

* Ormiston Junior College in collaboration with Dr Shaun Forgie, investigating whether the presence of dung beetles on effluent affects soil and the volume and biochemical composition of water that runs off following rainfall

* Mangere Mountain Education Trust, Mangere Bridge Primary School and Makaurau Marae, investigating the effect of rodent control on the kumara yield in their urban garden

* East Tamaki School investigating which chemicals in worm tea and vermicast affect plant growth the most, with chemists from University of Auckland.

* Willowbank School in collaboration with Plant & Food Research and Watercare, designing a robotic watering system triggered by a sensed level of soil moisture

The announcement was made by COMET Auckland,a Council Controlled Organisation of Auckland Council. Its role is to support education and skills across Auckland, contributing to the relevant social and economic goals in the Auckland Plan.

Science March is welcomed – but don’t imagine the discrediting of science will go away

Dr Ken Perrott has welcomed the raising of the profile of the “science debate” in New Zealand in the past week and big turnouts for the Science March in several major cities.

Writing in Open Parachute, he said he saw the marches as a general demonstration of support for science and opposition to attempts to discredit it.

Examples of discrediting include attacks on the science around climate change, vaccinations, evolution and fluoridation.

Some of the media presented the march as a demonstration against US president Donald Trump and his policies, Dr Perrott noted.

“But every country and every region have examples where politicians have downplayed scientific evidence or even attempted to discredit that evidence and the scientists who produced it. These sort of struggles went on long before Trump and they will go on after Trump.

“For example, in New Zealand, we have some specific issues over water quality and climate change which are quite unconnected to the US and its politicians. We have to fight out those issues here. Scientists, anyway, strongly resist linking their issues to politics and political movements. We have had a few bad experiences from that. This resistance and the silly intervention of identity politics into the organisation of the US Science Marches did make many scientists wary of participation.”

The Science March would not make the problems go away, Dr Perrott cautioned.

A continuing debate around science issues accordingly was important, although Dr Perrott emphasised he was not using the word “debate” in the formal sense of debate involving specific contact between adversaries.

“Issues about water quality and the environment come up continually in New Zealand. In the media, in local body and parliamentary considerations, and in government statements. A lot of the commentary may downplay the science on the issue or overplay economic and financial aspects. Some of the commentaries may be outright anti-science – or present misinformation, even distortions, about the science. Activist claims about the ‘dangers’ of the use of 1080 to control predator pests are an example.

“The misinformation and downplay of scientific information cannot be allowed free passage – it must be challenged. Hence there is a debate – again not a formal debate, but a debate, nevertheless. The public is exposed to various claims and counterclaims via the media and the internet. Regional bodies and parliamentary committees are deluged with submissions and scientists and supporters of science have a role to play there too.

“Scientists and supporters of science should not stand aside and let the opposition win by default – simply because they abhor the political process or ego-driven participation in media reports. But they need to choose their battles – and they need to consider the effectiveness or otherwise of different forms of participation in public debate.”

Among his concerns  with “formal” debates, Dr Perrott said usually they are more entertainment than information.

“In fact, debating is a recognised form of entertainment often driven by egos and aimed at ‘scoring points’ which appeal to a biased and motivated audience. They are rarely a way of providing information and using reasoning to come to conclusions – which is the normal and accepted process of scientific discussion.”

An exchange of scientific views or information in front of an interested but unbiased audience, on the other hand, can be a useful and good experience.

Similarly on-line, written debates or discussion of the sort Dr Perrott had on the fluoridation issue in 2013/2014 can be useful. Participants must produce information – and back it up with evidence, citations or logic – and the other party to the discussion always has the opportunity to critically comment on that information.

  • Dr Perrott trained as a chemist. He retired after a research career in surface chemistry, soil science and fertiliser chemistry working in the DSIR (Chemistry Division and Soil Bureau), MAF, MAFTech and AgResearch. He enjoys discussion of the wider social and philosophical issue surrounding science. These issues are often misrepresented in our society and he believe scientists have a responsibility to counter unscientific thinking and movements. This is one of the reasons he became a blogger, starting up Open Parachute in the middle of 2007.

Australia-New Zealand science and innovation agreement signed

Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith has welcomed the signing of a ground- breaking bilateral international science agreement between New Zealand and Australia.

The Australia–New Zealand Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement is a commitment to valuable collaboration across the innovation and science systems, and between researchers and innovative companies, on both sides of the Tasman.

Goldsmith said the agreement sets out a clear work programme that will provide a focus-point for cooperation.

“New Zealand’s role as foundation investors in the Australian Synchrotron is a prime example of that collaboration, and means we now have access to a facility which can assist in the development of everything from forensics, to surgical tools, to understanding environmental issues.”

Synchrotron users vary from universities and Crown Research Institutes, through to the private sector and high-tech start-ups.

Key initial proposals in the work programme include mapping collaborative research opportunities, research infrastructure planning and investment, standards and measurement research and the exchange of experts, knowledge and expertise.

The agreement also provides for a wide array of initiatives such as common science priorities, working together in other international endeavours and the promotion of a trans-Tasman innovation ecosystem for talent and investment attraction.

More information on the agreement and associated new initiatives can be found on the MBIE website (HERE).

Remarks about Waikato River spark petition – and revitalise concerns about silent scientists

The need for more scientists to be heard in public, not fewer, has been spotlighted by the row over Jacqueline Rowarth’s remarks about the Waikato River being one of the world’s five cleanest reveals, says Shaun Hendy.

Dr Rowarth has just taken up her post as chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority.

At a Primary Land Users Group meeting on October 3, she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest in the world, based on the OECD data she was using.

The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society said the claims were false and were based on outdated data and factual errors. Her analysis was based on OECD river nitrate data from 2002-2004, the society said, whereas the most up-to-date (for 2011) showed the Waikato had dropping from its 5 per cent ranking in 2002-2004 to a 24 per cent ranking.

A Dunedin environmental contractor and Green Party supporter, Matt Thomson, has followed up by launching a petition demanding Dr Rowarth be removed from her position. His reason, reportedly, was mainly to “rark things up” and he was not sure what he would do if the petition gained traction.

But Dr Rowarth had been appointed to a  new job at the EPA although “she was already sympathetic to the farming industry”.

Shaun Hendy, director of the Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence, and a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, has set out his thoughts in an article for Spinoff.

When more than 5,000 people became sick thanks to the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply in August, science experts “made themselves rather scarce”, he writes..

When Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair, Fenton Wilson, was asked by Radio New Zealand about his Council’s reports concerning the woefully unhealthy state of the nearby Tukituki river, he said “I don’t have any of that information to hand.” When it was put to him that recent flooding may have driven contaminated water into one of the town’s aquifers, Wilson speculated that “speculation is not helpful at this time”.

Did we really not have any scientists who could speak knowledgably on whether contaminated surface water could have gotten into Havelock North’s groundwater?

Remarkably, science confirms that remnant populations of such scientists do still reside in New Zealand. They work for the government, and as I wrote in Silencing Science earlier this year, they are the sorts of experts we almost never hear from.

Dr Rowarth, previously a professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato, has been employed by the  EPA to use her “expertise to explain our science, so people can have trust and confidence in the decisions we make”, according to EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.

Professor Hendy comments:

This may have sounded like a good plan at the time, but Rowarth’s stance on water quality has had other experts increasingly alarmed.

New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Marc Schallenberg said that Rowarth’s “comments concerning the condition of the Waikato River are not only false, but distract from the important work being done to improve water quality in New Zealand”.

Bryce Cooper, a water quality expert at NIWA, said, “Water quality in its [the Waikato River’s] lower reaches ranks in the bottom half of 500 sites nationally for key indicators such as nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli (a measure of faecal contamination) and water clarity.”

If you are predisposed to think that the science of tides was fabricated 400 years ago in preparation for Project Fear, then you may also be tempted to dismiss these water quality experts as having a vested interest in spreading alarm in order to keep themselves employed.

But if you actually want to be better informed about our rivers, you do need to hear from scientists like Cooper and Schallenberg – and, yes, Rowarth too. Because this is how science works. Scientists make claims, present their evidence, and wait for the judgement of their peers.

Better that we know how Rowarth views the evidence than not. Now those views are in the open, they can be scrutinised and critiqued.

Professor Hendy noted that when Dr Rowarth was asked to comment on her views by Radio New Zealand, the EPA replied, saying, “it would be inappropriate for her to comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role.”

In Silencing Science he complained that  the last thing a government scientist is allowed to do is speak about matters actually affecting the public.

But (as he muses) who needs an expert when helpful prime ministers can always find you another with a different point of view?

New data show the impact of NZ’s academic research is rising

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce has welcomed figures that show the impact of New Zealand’s academic research has been rising when compared with the rest of the world.

A report released today, Profile and Trends, New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Research, shows the rate of citation of New Zealand’s research is now 1.26 times the world average.

Joyce has used the data as a measure of the worth of the Government’s science policies:

“The high quality of New Zealand’s academic research is one reason why the Government has felt confident to invest more in key funding instruments like the Performance-Based Research Fund, the Marsden Fund, and the Health Research Fund.

“In Budget 2016 the Government invested $761 million over four years in the Innovative New Zealand package across science, skills, tertiary education and regional development initiatives. The Government’s increasing investment in these areas will further improve the quality of research in New Zealand.

“It’s also encouraging to see the number of students enrolled in doctoral qualifications in 2015 has increased by a further 2 per cent on the previous year.”

Since 2005, the number of domestic graduates completing doctorates has increased on average by 2 per cent each year, while the numbers of international students completing doctorates in New Zealand have increased by around 25 per cent each year.

A copy of the report can be found here.