SMC Heads-Up: GM Pine attack, issues for new scientists

Column – Science Media Centre

Prospects for emerging researchers The New Zealand Association of Scientists will hold its annual conference on Monday in a forum that will focus on emerging scientists and the opportunities that exist for them as they embark on their careers.SMC Heads-Up:GM Pine attack, issues for new scientists and Chinese medicines analysed
Issue 177 – April 13 – 19
Prospects for emerging researchers
The New Zealand Association of Scientists will hold its annual conference on Monday in a forum that will focus on emerging scientists and the opportunities that exist for them as they embark on their careers.

The conference will feature senior scientists, policy makers and science funding administrators and be addressed by David Carter, Minister for Primary Industries and of Local Government and David Shearer, leader of the Labour Party, and spokesperson for Science and Innovation.

In a scene-setting piece outlining some of the issues the conference will explore, NZAS president Professor Shaun Hendy writes that the way science is practiced is changing and that New Zealand has to adapt quickly.

“Big scientific problems require big teams these days and our current institutional arrangements, with their high transaction costs and researcher-scale accountabilities, are ill-suited to meet such challenges. Putting together large, multi-institutional teams to tackle complex problems remains depressingly difficult in the New Zealand environment”.

Hendy, who has researched how innovation ecosystems work and measured the benefits that come from research-based collaborations, said post-doctoral fellowships were a crucial part of a scientist’s training.

New Zealand is always going to be a small player on the global science and technology scene, yet we make ourselves even smaller by taking a fragmented, opaque and often haphazard approach to doing science.”

The Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce yesterday announced changes to the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships as a result of consultation with the science sector. Joyce is travelling and will be unable to attend the NZAS conference.

The SMC will be gathering commentary and recording podcasts during the conference which will be available on our website.

On the science radar…

Giraffes’ old coats, bee-mite battles, a martian monolith, oil-cleaning water, and the lady in red?
GM pine trials vandalised in Rotorua
Police are investigating a break-in at a radiata pine field trial facility in Rotorua after hundreds of genetically-modified year-old trees were slashed and uprooted over Easter.

Jon Hickford
The intruders were clever – they not only cut through perimeter fences but tunneled under a monitored security fence to get to the trees, which were planted about a year ago. Scion, the Crown research institute undertaking the trial, reckons the damage amounts to around $400,000.

It will put back the research – which involves two trials testing herbicide resistance and methods of growing denser woods – by one to two years, but Scion has vowed to carry on the research. Nevertheless, the successful attack is a blow to the already depleted research into genetically modified organisms underway in New Zealand.

Some scientists now fear that our ability to undertake GM research is so depleted due to the well-orchestrated attacks against it and the fear and doubt this has raised in the public consciousness, that we risk losing our edge in agricultural science.

Associate Professor, Jon Hickford, who is President of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, told the Science Media Centre:

“While we might think we can bury our heads in the sand and not be involved in GM research, this is unlikely to convince anyone outside of NZ.

“It will quite obviously further damage the morale of scientists, who as a professional group are demonstrably poorly paid and who suffer poor job security as well.”

Attacks on GM field trial facilities have sporadically disrupted research over the years:

1999: Activist group “Wild Greens” uproot a genetically modified trial potato crop at Lincoln

2002: Three years of research in GM potatoes ruined when a Crop & Food trial is destroyed by activists.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month called for submissions on GM trial applications. A group including University of Auckland, Massey University, the University of Otago, Lincoln University, Scion Research, AgResearch, ViaLactia Biosciences New Zealand, Plant & Food Research, and Canterbury University made two applications to use genetically modified Arabidopsis thaliana – (thale cress), in containment.

The EPA noted: “The group propose all GM Arabidopsis research at these research organisations will comply with a standardised set of controls to ensure the plant remains securely contained, aligning international best practice procedures in New Zealand laboratories”.

‘Dangers’ in Chinese medicine – study
A DNA analysis of several traditional Chinese medicine products has revealed illegal and potentially toxic ingredients.

A new study, PLoS Genetics today, analysed 15 samples of traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) seized at the Australian border, identifying the species origin of ingredients in the pills and powders.

Researchers detected genetic material from the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) which are classified by the IUCN Red List as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘critically endangered’ respectively. Products derived from these animals are illegal to trade according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) legislation.

The analysis also detected DNA from illegal and potentially toxic plants (Ephedra and Asarum).

“TCMs have a long cultural history, but today consumers need to be aware of the legal and health safety issues before adopting them as a treatment option,” Dr Mike Bunce, research leader and Murdoch University Australian Research Council Future Fellow, said.

The findings come as the parliament Health Select Committee is considering the Natural Health Products bill, which aims to tighten regulations around the manufacture, sale and labeling of natural health products in New Zealand.

Professor Shaun Holt, Victoria University of Wellington, and member of interim expert committee for the Natural Health Product Regulation Bill, highlighted three main problems with TCMs:
• a lack of clinical data on safety and efficacy
• concerns about product quality and contamination
• the inclusion of ingredients from endangered animal species
“I have no doubt that future research will demonstrate the efficacy and safety of some products, and that quality control will improve to acceptable levels,” Prof Holt said.

“But currently, I personally would not use or recommend any TCM biological product for the reasons outlined above.”

Further information and commentary can be found here.

“If you have useful innovation, you will have a ready market, you will be able to access capital, you will be able to hire the skilled people, you will be able to use resources more efficiently, and you will be able to afford to access the infrastructure to support you.

“If we want faster economic growth for our country then innovation is essential.”

Hon Steven Joyce, Minister of Science and Innovation
New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Chinese Medicines: A DNA analysis of several traditional Chinese medicines has identified ingredients from potentially toxic plants and endangered animals.

Indonesian Quake: Experts from around the globe offer insight into the the Indonesian quake and subsequent tsunami warning.

Dental x-rays: New research has drawn a link between a history dental x-ray imaging and incidence of meningioma, a type of brain tumor – but in light of modern regulations and technology, experts are not concerned.
In the news:

Rex machinas: A senior Indian Congress leader who was wheelchair bound for 8 years is back on his feet thanks to Rex Bionics, an innovative New Zealand mobility solutions company.

Ripped knickers, forensic insights: New research from the University of Otago examines how underwear fabric tears under experimental conditions, aiming to provide forensic data for sexual assault cases.

SKA Split?: Political pressure may lead to the much sought-after Square Kilometer Array project being split between Africa and Australasia, rather than being based in either one or the other as originally discussed.

NZAS on emerging scientists: New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) president Professor Shaun Hendy.addresses the question of whether emerging scientists still have a future in New Zealand.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Nope, we are not going to hell in a handcart– Futurist and author Mark Stevenson has been in Wellington, espousing “unashamed optimism about the future,” reports Peter Kerr.

The shape wind to come– Bryan Walker gets to grips with a new report from NZ Wind Energy Association (NZWEA), setting out their vision for the coming years
Hot Topic

Tearing knickers and why it needs to be done– Despite all we know about forensics, we need to looking for more clues says Anna Sandiford.
Forensic Scientist

NZ ETS to be watered down (again), but emissions news good – Gareth Renowden analyses the latest announcements regarding the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme.
Hot Topic

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Ladybirds may combat invasive pest: NZ scientists say that growers may be able to combat a relatively-new pest insect incursion — invasive tomato-potato psyllids (TPP) — by using a natural enemy already established here… ladybirds. Lincoln researchers say two Australian ladybirds which have naturalised here may be able to make a meal of the pests, reducing the reliance of growers on frequent applications of insecticides with highly variable results.
Biological Control

TB model offers solutions for deer farmers: A computation model of a paratuberculosis spread in New Zealand deer farms offers some clues as to ways that infections can be controlled and limited. The model showed that disease prevalence and incidence went down 50% when rotational grazing compared to continuous grazing was adopted. Identification and culling of young deer in a highly infectious state (shedding) also limits the spread of disease.
Preventive Veterinary Medicine

12 APR: Want to look bigger? Get a gun: A study funded by the US Air Force confirms what scrawny thugs have long known: Brandishing a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise. Researchers asked hundreds of Americans to guess the size and muscularity of four men based solely on photographs of their hands holding a range of easily recognizable objects, including handguns. The authors found that participants imagined the individuals holding a weapon to be bigger and stronger than those who were not.

11 APR: Escaping salmon benefit ecosystems: New US research suggests that allowing more Pacific salmon to spawn in coastal streams will not only benefit the natural environment, including grizzly bears, but could also lead to more salmon in the ocean and thus larger salmon harvests in the long term, a win-win for ecosystems and humans. The researchers investigate how increasing “escapement” – the number of salmon that escape fishing nets to enter streams and spawn-can improve the natural environment.
PLoS Biology

Fragile X syndrome reversed in mice:
A new compound reverses many of the major symptoms associated with Fragile X syndrome (FXS), that causes inherited intellectual disability and autism. Inhibiting a receptor for an excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, may mitigate major symptoms, according to mouse studies. Around 1000 New Zealanders are affected by FXS and 8000 New Zealanders are thought to be carriers.

Re-programming drug memories: People previously addicted to heroin can be kept from relapsing into drugs — without resorting to other narcotics or chemicals — by changing their memories of the drug’s effects. Research with rats and human volunteers has shown that changing a sober person’s memories of past drug use can give a long-lasting detox.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:
New Marsden conveners: Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce today announced the appointment of three new convenors to the Marsden Fund Council: Dr Ian Ferguson (Cellular, Molecular and Physiological Biology Panel), Professor Jari Kaipio (Mathematical and Information Sciences Panel) and Professor Robert Hannah (Humanities Panel). Dr Grant Scobie returns for a second term (Economics and Human and Behavioural Sciences Panel).

Pharma spending up: Health Minister Tony Ryall says despite tight times, spending on pharmaceuticals increased by $180 million over the last three years. “This is a significant investment giving more New Zealanders access to subsidised medicines.” Mr Ryall said.
Upcoming sci-tech events

Implementing lessons learnt – The 2012 Annual General Meeting of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering – April 13-15, Christchurch.
New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) 2012 conference – April 16, Wellington.
Pacific Edge – HRC Pacific Health Research Fono 2012 – April 18-19, Auckland.
Blue Energy: from International Vision to Reality – Aotearoa Wave and Tidal Energy Association (AWATEA)’s annual conference – April 19-20, Wellington.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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