Newsletter Digest: Mining disaster, COP16 and PM’s Science Prize winners

Science helps make sense of Pike River

A number of science-related angles to the Pike River mining disaster emerged during extended media coverage over the past week — from the chemical make-up of the atmosphere in the mine before and after the explosion, to the robotic technology used in the ill-fated rescue attempt, to the GAG jet engine that will likely be used to make it safe enough in the mine to attempt a recovery of the miners’ bodies.

Many scientists and experts from New Zealand, Australia and the US assisted the Science Media Centre and the media in general this week and we’d like to acknowledge the way they handled the science-related queries from the media professionally, quickly and sensitively. Particular mention should be made of Associate Professor David Cliff of the University of Queensland, an expert in mine fires and explosions, who many of you will have quoted in your articles on Pike River in the last week.

David was on hand from early morning to late at night throughout the week to handle all sorts of queries from the media. Others including New Zealand mine safety expert David Feickert and University of Canterbury geologist and mining expert David Bell should also be mentioned. The “three Davids” were excellent sources of expert opinion on a fast moving news story and through their efforts we gained a better understanding of methane explosions and the damage they can wreak.

The efforts of good science communicators came to the fore this week in the same way it did in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, where seismologists and natural hazards experts from the University of Canterbury, GMS Science, Victoria University and several other institutions stepped up to explain liquifaction and the intricacies of hidden faultlines.

From our point of view at the SMC, its heartening to know there are so many experts in the science sector who can confidently front to the media when science is on the front page day after day and there is an overwhelming demand for the science to be explained simply. Thanks to everyone — including our colleagues at the AusSMC in Adelaide — who helped us help the media this week on what was the biggest story the SMC has worked on in its short history.

COP16 begins next week

The UN’s annual climate change summit will get underway next week in Cancun, Mexico. COP16 will run from 29 Nov – 10 December, once again seeking to negotiate a follow-on agreement for the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

In contrast to last year’s meeting in Copenhagen (COP15), attendance from world leaders is not expected to buoy the meeting’s profile this time around. Instead, environment and foreign ministers from 194 countries will attempt to nut out deals on smaller issues like deforestation, green technology transfer and financing.

A global deal to cut carbon emissions seems unlikely to emerge from the talks, but officials are hopeful they will be able to put in place agreements on emissions monitoring, reporting and verification, a prerequisite for any future legally binding targets.

The SMC will be gathering rolling commentary from local experts on developments at the conference. Further resources for reporters can be found at:

2010 PM’s Science Prizes awarded

One million dollars in prize money was awarded to top scientists and science educators in a ceremony today in Auckland. This marks the second year for the prizes, which aim to elevate the profile and prestige of science in New Zealand.

The Magnetic Resonance Innovation team, headed by Professor Sir Paul Callaghan at Victoria University of Wellington, took home the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, worth $500,000. The award recognises the group’s contributions to magnetic resonance imaging and materials science research on the international stage, as well as the growing impact on New Zealand technology exports through its spin-off company, Magritek.

Dr Donna Rose Addis, a neuroscientist at the University of Auckland, won the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize for research on brain function, memory loss and effects on imagination. Dr Addis was also awarded an inaugural Rutherford Discovery Fellowship earlier this month for her brain research.

Dr Cornel de Ronde, geochemist and underwater explorer at GNS Science, received the 2010 Science Media Communication Prize. He is working on a documentary about the search for submerged remnants of the Pink and White Terraces, destroyed in the Tarawera eruption of 1886. Prior media experiences have centred on submarine exploration and his research into seafloor hydrothermal vents.

The Science Teacher’s Prize went to Steve Martin at Howick College in Auckland for innovative use of online science lessons for individualised learning and virtual classroom design.

And a Bluff student — 17-year-old Bailey Lovett — captured the Future Scientist Prize with her research into shellfish contamination following severe weather events.

For full details, see here.

Growing Up in NZ – long term study

First results from the new Auckland-based longitudinal study “Growing Up in New Zealand” were launched in a report this week.

The study is following more than 7000 Kiwi families over two decades, through pregnancy, birth, childhood and adolescence, until participating children reach adulthood. This first report presents data from extensive interviews with expectant mothers and their partners before the birth of the child — a unique aspect of the study’s design.

It addresses a wide range of topics, from plans for immunisation, breastfeeding and parental leave from work, through to ethnic identity, family relationships, economic status and diet, tobacco and alcohol use during pregnancy.

The SMC rounded up commentary from experts in a wide range of fields including maternal nutrition, immunisation, pregnancy and others. Their perspectives on what the results mean can be found on our website.

SMC Japan opens its doors

Tonight the Science Media Centre of Japan is to be launched at an event in Tokyo. It will add to the SMC network which now spans the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and will make the international collaboration on science-related stories of international significance all the more effective.

Congrats to our new colleagues! –  See: