The Week in Science (to February 13)

The trouble with immunisation
Immunisation has been in the news of late, with experts suggesting New Zealand faces a whooping cough epidemic and Gardasil, the HPV vaccine for teenage girls going into schools this week.

Some suggest the vaccine should be also be given to boys while new research in the British Journal of Cancer is revealing the legacy of the HPV virus among baby boomers who contracted it during the “swinging 60s”.

In Britain, figures released today by the Health Protection Agency show the number of measles cases in England and Wales jumped 36 per cent in 2008. As Unicef recently revealed, New Zealand is lagging behind the rest of the world in infant immunisation rates.

The SMC held an online media briefing on Friday featuring Dr Nikki Turner and Professor Michael Baker to discuss New Zealand’s problem of low immunisation rates, the causes of it and the impact on public health if immunisation coverage doesn’t improve. Listen to a recording of the briefing here. Registered journalists can log-in to download the experts’ presentations.

Issues on the science radar: Environmental implications of RMA overhaul, A1 and A2 milk, New Zealand air quality report card, Treasury disagrees with Government on innovation policies.

Did the Chinese engineer their own misery?
A fascinating piece in Science last week has been getting pick-up around the world after suggesting that the weight of water in the massive Zipingpu Dam may have triggered the earthquake that killed 70,000 people last year.

With New Zealand’s reliance on hydro-electric power, what are the implications for reservoir-induced seismicity here? Contact the SMC if you’d like to talk to locla geophysicists.

How well has Darwin aged?
The 12th of February is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the event will be marked in Christchurch with a birthday party to open BioEd, a conference hosted by the Allan Wilson Centre.

A phalanx of evolution experts from around the world will descend on Christchurch next week for BioEd. Visitors include Michael Morwood who discovered the Hobit of Flores, Ross Crozier, an expert in the evolution of colonies – bees and ants etc, and Lindall Bromham who has just written the book DNA: A Beginner’s Guide to Molecular Evolution.

Contact the SMC if you need assistance with evolution-related stories during the week of Darwin’s birthday.

Background briefings

Upcoming briefing topics: Dates to be confirmed…

Food miles and eco-labels – We look at the latest research into the contentious issues of food miles as New Zealand looks to its primary exports more than ever to get it through the global economic crisis. Scheduled for Feb 24. More details soon.

Please let us know of briefing topics you would like us to explore. Briefings are typically 25 minutes long and allow you to dial in form your desk to listen to experts, watch a presentation in real-time via the web and ask questions. Perfect for a busy reporter! Contact us on with briefing ideas.

New from the SMC

The biggest snake in the world: The discovery of a 60 million year old snake fossil in Colombia has important implications for our understanding of climate change.

The SMC rounded up comment from experts on the significance of the snake fossil find. We also interview the co-author of the Nature paper outlining the find, which was published in Nature this week. Click here for the recording.

The Pantheon’s secrets: More world-class research from New Zealand scientists as University of Otago researcher Robert Hannahreveals that Romes ancient temple the Pantheon likely acted as a massive sundial.Details here.

Register for back-stage access

If you are a staff reporter or freelancer covering science, technology or health, register with the SMC to get a log-in for verified access to research papers, audio and video and a library of photos.

It’s easy to sign up. Click here.

Research highlights
New research now online from the New Zealand Journal of Zoology: An inventory of mammalian pests in a New Zealand city, Stomach contents of stranded pilot whales and what they reveal, The effectiveness of poison bait stations. Details here.

Countries flouting UN fisheries codeNature paper

When does severe childhood obesity become a child protection issue? Details here.
Smoking and behaviour in childrenPNAS research
Maternal drinking and behaviour in pre-school childrenDetails here.
Young kids inherit food knowledge – details here.
Early whales gave birth on land – Details here.

Next week’s sci-tech events

Conference on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology: Dunedin, 8-12 Feb. Details here.
BioEd conference: Christchurch, 12 – 15 Feb. Details here.

24th NZ conference on Microscopy: Rotorua, 10 – 12 Feb. Details here.

Further out:
Webstock: Wellington, 16 – 20 Feb. Details here.
Allan Wilson Centre Lecture Series – Human evolution:
Feb 16 – 20 nationwide.
NZBIO Conference,
Auckland,9-11 March. Bio Solutions for a Changing World, Details here.