The week ahead in science (to February 20)

Australia’s week of horror
The bush fires that have ravaged part of southern Victoria have been in the headlines all week, but the societal and ecological impacts of the fires will linger long after the last headlines about this disaster have been written.The Australian SMC had rolling coverage of the bush fires all week thinking of all the science-related angles – bush fire management, extreme weather, climate change, forensics, the psychology of arsonists. Expert comments and links to images and useful resources are published here.

Meanwhile, some European research published in the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal looks at wildfires that took place in response to the abrupt climate change that took place between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago.

The results provide valuable information about possible trends in wildfires in the future. Details here.

The future of food…and the web

The Riddet Institute, which specialises in scientific research into foods and human nutrition will examine the future of foods in a conference taking place in Palmerston North next week and featuring a strong line up of local and international experts.

At the same time, web developers, programmers and internet entrepreneurs will gather in Wellington for Webstock, the main event on the calendar when it comes to looking at web technologies and where internet business models are going.

NZ dragging the chain on wave power?

A visiting British expert says that, “In the past 12 months there’s been a step change [in wind power development in Britain]. Now when people give presentations on marine energy, rather than showing artists’ impressions, they’re showing photographs of hardware in the water connected to the grid.”

The likelihood of the UK being able to produce widespread energy from wave-generated power has been given a vital boost this week. Details here.

New Zealand’s second round of contestable funding for marine energy will be announced in May/June 2009.

Information from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority can be found here.

Ecstasy report sparks controversy in Britain

A British report based on a 12-month study of 4,000 academic papers says that the drug ecstasy poses a significant public health issue in Britain with up to five million tablets taken every month.

But the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) also reported that ecstasy is nowhere near as dangerous as other class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, and should be downgraded to class B along with amphetamines and cannabis.The British Government however has refused to downgrade the drug.

The British SMC rounded up comment on the report from British scientists. Details here.

Background briefings

Upcoming briefing topics: Dates to be confirmed…Food Miles

A briefing on food miles and eco-labeling and the economic implications for New Zealand exports will be held on 24 February at 10.30am. An alert outlining the scientists presenting and details on how to join the conference will be sent out early next week.


The SMC will bring together scientists to outline the current biosecurity threats to the country and the latest research in this area. Scheduled for early March – exact date to be confirmed.

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

Dissecting the infrastructure spend: The SMC rounded up comment from engineering, transport and housing experts on the Government’s $500 million scheme to bring forward infrastructure projects with the aim of creating 2000 jobs. Details here.

Scientists on the GM Brassica trial breach: Opponents of genetic modification scored a victory last week when crown research institute Plant & Food suspended a GM trial after an environmental control breach was discovered by anti-GM interest groups. But how significant was the breach and what does it mean for GM research in general going forward? We asked scientists, including a former member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into GM to comment. Details here.

Darwin’s legacy: A wrap-up of some of the local coverage of the birthday of Charles Darwin. Details here.

Obesity during pregnancy: A new study published in the February 11 issue of JAMA found that pregnant mothers who were obese had an  increased risk of having a baby with congenital abnormalities.

In New Zealand, one in three adults is overweight and a further one in four is obese. Obesity is a major public health concern and there are significant health implications both for mothers who are obese and for their infants. During pregnancy, obesity increases the risk of gestational diabetes, hypertensive disorders and cesarean delivery in the mother, and infants of obese mothers are at increased risk of birth difficulties, macrosomia and perinatal death. 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
Latest research from the New Zealand Medical Journal: A call for a revamp of respiratory services by the NZMJ, a report on the progress of live liver donor transplants in New Zealand and the problems finding enough donors, using readmission rates to judge the effectiveness of healthcare. Details here.

For copies of the papers contact Shani Naylor of the New Zealand Medical Association on 04 472 2721.

Primate genes provide clues to human evolution: The first comparative map of four primate genomes is published in Nature this week. The map is used to reconstruct the evolutionary history of duplications in the human genome and when it diverged from that of other primates. Details here (doi:10.1038/nature07744).

Toddlers learn more words when parents point: Pointing and making other gestures to babies around 14 months may give them a leg up when developing vocabulary a few years later, researchers say. The findings suggest a partial explanation for why children from lower socioeconomic brackets tend to have smaller vocabularies than children from higher socioeconomic brackets. Details here.

Harmful dust from printers: The identity and origin of tiny, potentially hazardous particles emitted from common laser printers have been revealed by a new study at Queensland University of Technology. Details here.

Next week’s sci-tech events
The future of foods: Palmerston North, 16 – 18 Feb.An opportunity to discuss  emerging trends in food consumption, foods that will make us healthier, new processes and product development options, emerging regulatory issues, and how this is so important to New Zealand’s future.The conference offers first-class speakers and an opportunity for stimulating discussion of topical ideas. Details here

Webstock 2009: Wellington 16 – 19 Feb. The main event on the calendar for discussion of web technologies and business models. Workshops and local and international speakers. Details here.

Healthcare World Australia 2009: Sydney 17 – 19 Feb. Leading national forum where health system decision-makers come together to discuss policy, share best practice and develop successful initiatives for improved health delivery and outcomes. Details here.