Newsletter Digest: Wakefield chastised, the IPCC furore, and conventions galore

Lancet kills MMR paper 10 years on

The move by London-based medical journal The Lancet to retract a ten year old paper that suggested a potential link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children effectively ends one of the longest running medical controversies of recent decades.

The retraction from The Lancet editor Richard Horton follows a damning General Medical Council ruling last week that found the author of The Lancet paper, Dr Andrew Wakefield, acted unethically in the way he carried out the research. Numerous peer-reviewed studies in the years since Wakefield published his research suggest there is no link between MMR and autism, however the resulting public health scare led to immunisation rates falling around the world.

Scientists in the UK and New Zealand this week reflected on the ruling and the impact of the research.

Listen out for a discussion on the topic on Graeme Hill’s Radio Live weekend show at 12.45pm this Sunday.

Open season on IPCC climate report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is facing intense scrutiny worldwide as errors uncovered in its influential 4th Assessment report are dissected in the media and presented as evidence of a lack of scientific rigor in high level climate science publications which governments rely on to set environmental policies.

Editorials from both the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post examined the issue this week, drawing largely on reports published in British newspapers.

New Zealand scientists approached by the Science Media Centre, many of whom helped author sections of the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, say the mistakes are relatively minor and don’t undermine the science on climate change.

Professor Martin Manning, Director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University said, “…while there have been mistakes made in the Working Group 2 report, if the framework that has been set up jointly by scientists and governments for collecting and distilling key information on climate change was properly recognised, then much of the debate would fade away.”

Environment Minister told Radio New Zealand this week he wouldn’t tolerate errors in research reports generated locally.

“I’ve made it quite plain to the New Zealand scientific fraternity that those sorts of slip-ups will not be tolerated and they need to make sure the advice they are giving myself and my cabinet colleagues is straight science and robust science, because the credibility of the climate change problem gets into question even when you get these quite small issues on the fringe where errors have been made,” he said.

Big month for science gatherings

Conferences covering everything from biochar to superconductors are scheduled over the next three weeks, featuring international experts and new research likely to make newsworthy copy.

Here’s the SMC picks for some of the highlights: (see details in the Events section at the bottom of this newsletter).

Scientific Research Colloquim: An annual event looking at agricultural science made all the more topical this year as it follows the formation of a global alliance led by New Zealand with the aim of researching methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Will feature Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman.

SKANZ: What’s the latest news on the Square Kilometre Array project – the science the massive radio telescope will undertake, the design of the pilot project and New Zealand’s involvement in what could potentially be the biggest scientific instrument to be built since the Large Hadron Collider.

Superconductivity Industyr Summit (ISIS): Industrial Research and experts from New Zealand universities and overseas research organisations will discuss the latest technological developments in the world of high-temperature superconductors which are used in everything from power stations and transmission grids to mass transit systems. Can New Zealand make a lucrative export industry out of developing this technology?

New Zealand Biochar workshop: Researchers from Massey University and form across the Australian and New Zealand biochar researchers network will discuss the latest research into biochar methods, which are designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the quality of the soil we plant our crops in. The will also be firing up a mini-pyrolyzer to demonstrate the process.