THOMAS CRANMER: PM’s urge to get to Antarctica reminds us of NZ’s connections with the ice (mythical and otherwise)

TV3 today reported that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stressed the importance of New Zealand maintaining its strong connection with Antarctica as other countries contest territory in the region.

Ardern, who is visiting Antarctica, spent yesterday visiting areas away from Scott Base, including the Terra Nova and Shackleton huts, and the Dry Valley

THOMAS CRANMER earlier this week said it is unclear why she wanted to skip Parliament to visit Antarctica – but he noted it does bring to mind last year’s research regarding Maori voyages and the little noticed response from Ngāi Tahu.

 

 For reasons known only to her closest advisors, the Prime Minister seems intent on missing this week’s sitting of Parliament in order to travel to Antarctica – a place described as “the coldest, windiest, remotest place on Earth” by Antarctica NZ general communications manager Megan Nicholl. According to Grant Robertson, the man who deputizes for Ardern during her absences abroad, “it’s the kind of visit the New Zealand Prime Minister should make”.

For the rest of us, we are left to scratch our heads and speculate. The stated reason of marking the 65th anniversary of Scott Base seems, on the face of it, a tenuous excuse to make a very climate unfriendly return flight on a C130 Hercules particularly at a time when there are so many pressing issues on the domestic political agenda. Continue reading “THOMAS CRANMER: PM’s urge to get to Antarctica reminds us of NZ’s connections with the ice (mythical and otherwise)”

Investing in science to tackle farm emissions is laudable but ACT reminds the Govt of how GM ban is nobbling this work

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications three years ago reported promising news about work at AgScience under the heading NZ’s Environmentally Sustainable Ryegrass for Livestock Makes Steady Progress in the Field.

This advised that scientists from AgResearch had developed a genetically modified (GM) ryegrass known as the High Metabolisable Energy (HME) Ryegrass, which aims to strike a balance among reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, better drought tolerance, and farm productivity.

Ryegrass is used as a high-quality pasture grass for livestock, the article explained.

 Today’s market has dairy farmers becoming more conscious about the environment and are searching for ways to reduce their carbon footprint while improving their produce at the same time.

In December of 2018, AgResearch reported that HME ryegrass grew up to 50% faster than conventional ryegrass and produced 23% less methane under laboratory conditions. And last week, Dr. Greg Bryan, AgResearch Principal Scientist, announced that the HME ryegrass performed well in controlled growing conditions. Continue reading “Investing in science to tackle farm emissions is laudable but ACT reminds the Govt of how GM ban is nobbling this work”

How CH4 Global is turning seaweed into fodder for farm ruminants – and hopes to cool the climate

Big  strides  are  being  made in the  development  of  a  seaweed-based   product  which,  it  is  claimed,  reduces  methane  emissions in ruminant animals  by up  to 90%.

The product, which its champions say could resolve New Zealand’s climate change threat  from  methane emissions  in  the nation’s  dairy  herd, has  been sold  for  the  first  time—-to  an  Australian customer.

It has been made by CH4 Global™, Inc., a company which says it is

”… on an urgent mission to address climate change by providing our seaweed-based Asparagopsis products to farmers worldwide so they can dramatically reduce the methane emissions of their livestock and realize significant value in the process.”

CH4 Global has its global headquarters in Henderson, Nevada, in the United States, and operations in Australia (CH4 Australia PTY Limited) and New Zealand (CH4 Aotearoa Limited).

It is rapidly developing a diverse partner network of Asparagopsis growers, while supporting farmers and fostering sustainable communities. Continue reading “How CH4 Global is turning seaweed into fodder for farm ruminants – and hopes to cool the climate”

If GM opponents aren’t swayed by the potential of genetic science to help feed the world, might the health benefits do the trick?

Is NZ  steering  itself  back  into the  Dark  Ages  with its  negative  policy  on genetic  modification?

Thanks  to the  pressure   of the  Green movement  20  or so  years  ago, releasing a genetically modified organism  in New Zealand without approval is illegal.

In New Zealand you cannot import, develop, field test or release a genetically modified organism without approval from the Environmental Protection Authority (previously known at the  Environmental Risk Management Authority).

Yet  because  of great strides in fundamental research, biology is becoming ever more programmable, as  The  Economist  reported last week.

Two recent scientific advances show just how powerful the possibilities could be. Continue reading “If GM opponents aren’t swayed by the potential of genetic science to help feed the world, might the health benefits do the trick?”

Getting super growth into those tree seedlings is simple – it can be done for a song (or two) and some nurturing conversation

The Government’s esteem for science and science-based research findings can be gauged from a press statement released by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The statement gives a progress report on a New Zealand Forest Services’ partnership with a marae-based tree-growing project and its grant of nearly $500,000 over two years through the One Billion Trees (1BT) programme.

It suggests the money has been well spent because – it transpires – the trees being grown on the marae are out-performing trees grown elsewhere.

This is instructive, pointing to how the Government can pick up the pace in bringing the ambitious One Billion Trees programme to a triumphant conclusion.

No great investment in nutrients or silvicultural expertise is required .

The secret is disclosed in the headline on the press statement:  Waiata helping native seedlings to thrive. Continue reading “Getting super growth into those tree seedlings is simple – it can be done for a song (or two) and some nurturing conversation”

Academics announce new Centre of Indigenous Science – and now (it seems) they will find out what they should be teaching

Any notion that “the science is settled” is (or should be) anathema to good scientists.

There is always more to learn

“… because the scientific method never provides absolute conclusions. It’s always possible that the next observation will contradict the current consensus.”

 But in this country the fundamental matter of defining science and determining what should be taught to science studies in our universities has become more unsettling than unsettled.

“Indigenous knowledge” has become “indigenous science”, overriding the conventional view that science is colour blind and culturally neutral – that science is science is science.

And the heads of our most highly esteemed academic institutions do not resist the push to have “indigenous science” incorporated within their science faculties rather than – let’s say – Māori Studies or anthropological departments.

And so last week the Otago Daily Times reported:   Continue reading “Academics announce new Centre of Indigenous Science – and now (it seems) they will find out what they should be teaching”

Megan Woods’ challenge – she has plenty of advice from champions of matauranga Maori as she considers its role in NZ science

The Government received 901 submissions in response to its green paper on the future of  the country’s research, science and innovation system – and the role to be played by matauranga Maori.  can play a rolebe merged with it.

But for now, the submissions are being kept confidential because several submitters have requested anonymity. Submissions and submitter information are being reviewed against privacy and confidentiality obligations.

The Minister in charge of this reshaping of our science system is Dr Megan Woods, whose CV includes work for Crop & Food Research and Plant & Food Research. But she was a business manager, rather than a researcher, it seems.   Her PhD is in history,  obtained at the University of Canterbury with a thesis titled Integrating the nation: Gendering Maori urbanisation and integration, 1942–1969.

Whatever happened to the commas?

According to a Cabinet paper Woods presented on October 28, the reform programme she favours for the country’s science sector aligns with outcomes sought by the Minister of Education on proposed changes to Performance-Based Research Fund funding.

The first two aims of those changes (as ranked in Woods’ Cabinet paper) are

  • To support a holistic approach to recognising and rewarding research; and
  • To better reflect and partnership between Māori and the Crown (sic).

Her paper says New Zealand’s research, science and innovation system

” … needs to make better, faster progress on supporting Māori and iwi aspirations  We know that more work needs to be done to explore how the RSI system will seek to understand and respond to Te Tiriti obligations and opportunities. Continue reading “Megan Woods’ challenge – she has plenty of advice from champions of matauranga Maori as she considers its role in NZ science”

How a tohunga could have enlightened Woods about fog and cycles before Pyper partnership was agreed

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods perhaps did not take all available advice before she committed the government to a partnership with New Zealand aerospace start-up, Pyper Vision.

Announcing the partnership, she said it could help make fog delays a thing of the past for passengers, freight, airlines and airports around the world.

Pyper Vision – she explained – is developing a technology that disperses a safe water-absorbing environmentally-friendly product via drone that soaks up moisture in the air and clears runway fog so that pilots and air traffic controllers can operate safely.

RNZ turned that into something more readily digested:  

Christchurch-based company Pyper Vision is developing a spray that can absorb moisture from the air quickly, clearing fog.

It aims to ease flight disruptions such as the three day backlog in flights at Wellington Airport last week, when fog rolled in on Tuesday afternoon, and didn’t ease until Thursday afternoon, affecting more than 200 flights.

The team is being assisted by the Government’s Airspace Integration Trials Programme, which aims to support the adoption of new aviation technology safely into the existing transport system. Continue reading “How a tohunga could have enlightened Woods about fog and cycles before Pyper partnership was agreed”

Many academics are nervous about saying what they think – but they should be okay if what they say is mana-enhancing

ACT MP James McDowall alerted us to new research showing an ominous level of apprehension among Kiwi academics about speaking freely at New Zealand universities.  He said this highlights the urgent need for his Member’s Bill, which requires tertiary education institutions to protect freedom of expression.

Curia research, commissioned by the Free Speech Union, found almost half of the academics who responded are concerned about raising differing perspectives or discussing issues related to gender and sex and half don’t feel free to debate or discuss Treaty issues.

McDowall acknowledged that tertiary education institutions are required by the Education Act 1989 and the Bill of Rights Act 1990 to uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression.

But universities have barred speakers and cancelled events citing ‘mental harm’ to students.

“Essentially, there are no consequences if an institution actively inhibits freedom of expression without legitimate cause.”

His Bill requires tertiary education institutions to protect freedom of expression, including the issuing of codes of practice that set out the procedures students and staff should follow to uphold freedom of expression, and by ensuring that the requirements of codes of practice are met. Continue reading “Many academics are nervous about saying what they think – but they should be okay if what they say is mana-enhancing”

Seventy academics support motion of no confidence in Royal Society – but others say they are too scared to sign

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Seventy notable academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society over its handling of the professors’ letter to the Listener — but some of their colleagues say they are too fearful to sign it. Graham Adams reports.

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If anyone ever believed universities are institutions where academics can speak their minds freely and openly, the stoush sparked by the letter that seven University of Auckland professors sent to the Listener last July should have thoroughly disabused them of that notion.

What should have been an uncontroversial statement that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus led to a wave of condemnation and vilification of the professors. And this despite the fact they made it clear that indigenous knowledge was valuable, both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”.

What’s more, prominent Māori scholars such as Professor Sir Mason Durie had already acknowledged that science and indigenous knowledge are incommensurable.

Even the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, hung them out to dry with what one British journalist described as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email” that referred to the “considerable hurt and dismay” the letter had caused staff, students and alumni.

Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis, were Fellows of the Royal Society NZ, but — rather than supporting their right to speak publicly about their concerns about mātauranga Māori in a science syllabus — it responded with a statement on its website that said their views were not only “misguided” but caused “harm”.

Last November, it also instigated disciplinary action against Nola, Cooper and Corballis after complaints were laid. (Corballis has since died.)

After a barrage of criticism from famous international scientists, including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, our premier academy for science and the humanities abandoned its pursuit of the two professors in March. But if it hoped that would be the end of the matter it was sorely mistaken.

Last week, 70 of the society’s more than 400 Fellows signed a letter to the society calling for a no-confidence motion to be debated at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28 April.

It began:

“Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists.

“We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the society’s very poor processes and actions.”

The three specific objections made in the letter were to the statement published on the society’s website last year (described as “ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part”); the way the society handled the complaints against Professors Nola and Cooper; and lastly the “unfortunate” fact the pair felt compelled to resign.

As the letter put it:

“It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).”

The motion was moved and seconded by two of the nation’s most prestigious and accomplished mathematicians, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin and Distinguished Professor Marston Condor.

Among the 70 signatories were internationally renowned heavyweights, including Distinguished Professors Brian Boyd and Peter Schwerdtfeger — celebrated scholars in literature and theoretical chemistry respectively — and Professor Alan Bollard, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, and chief executive and secretary to Treasury.

Having a substantial chunk of the Royal Society’s Fellows formally object to its handling of the Listener letter and the fallout is momentous but what is also remarkable — and remarkably depressing — is that the number of signatories would have been even higher if other Fellows had not feared for their livelihoods and careers by signing.

Gaven Martin’s covering letter included these dismal paragraphs:

”Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour, but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their university), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public. 

“Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter. 

“Two Fellows (major Royal Society NZ medallists) said this:

‘Better not [sign] at this stage… I agree with all the statements — but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.’

 And: 

‘In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at [the University of Auckland] if I do so’.”

Martin noted:

“This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in New Zealand at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.”

The letter’s signatories ask that the society write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.

They also want the society to

“… review its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters”.

Lastly, that the entire society “be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests”.

While it is at it, the Royal Society might also like to apologise to the other four professors who signed the Listener letter but are not Fellows given that their reputations were all sullied by the statement the society put on its website about their views being misguided and harmful.

However, you’d have to say that right now the society will have its hands full just dealing with the explosive no-confidence motion placed before it.

  • Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist.