Parliament Meets Science

We all get concerned when politicians don’t care about science or the environment. It affects every one of us.

There is no single ‘best’ way to lessen the gaps in the science-policy-public triangle. Most people think the onus is on scientists to communicate. Yes, scientists should engage outside their peers a bit more, that’s a given (and scientists doing great ‘scicomm’ is happening more than many realise!). But communication is a two-way relationship. To communicate science effectively, scientists need to be met halfway by an audience that understands and respects what they do and how they do it.

In Australia, scientists are being increasingly told that if their work is not commercially relevant, they are a burden on society. Encouraging scientists to find their commercial hidden story is all well and good, and some researchers may genuinely benefit from this. But it doesn’t benefit science overall.

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Data, not just for scientists

Early last year I wrote a post on ecology and mathematics that was inspired by an online discussion happening at the time. Although comprehensive advanced maths skills are not essential to being an influential or inspiring ecologist, a good level of mathematical knowledge and understanding of statistical analysis is definitely necessary to create honest science and communicate the importance of your work to others.

But it’s not just ecologists who need mathematical common sense. Anyone who deals with, or is interested in science needs to understand the ambiguity of an average, or the difference between a regression and a correlation. In fact, anyone who cares about the society they live in should be aware how deeply statistics and data now influence the way we live – policies and decisions on anything from what product choices you find in retail stores to how much tax you pay are all based on data.

Why does this matter to us? Well, if those data are a bit dodgy, or haven’t been analysed and presented appropriately, problems arise. And when these kinds of data misrepresentations are used to fuel public opinion or inform government policy, there can be serious impacts on communities, individuals and ecosystems. Continue reading

Scientific Evidence

Here’s an educational piece I had published on “scientific evidence” – that infamous term that so many politicians and corporations throw about, but so few actually explain to their audience! If someone tells us they have scientific evidence to back up their new product or proposed political decision, how can we trust the evidence they are referring to?

This piece aims to give a brief background on how research works, for those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the industry. It also presents some questions to think about that may be of help to those wanting to check the facts themselves.

© Manu Saunders 2013

Great news for bees…

…with a new review published in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability!

The authors, including renowned UK bee expert Professor Dave Goulson, present the facts about neonicotinoids and pollinators. They discuss the background to the issue, and present evidence for how these pesticides really affect all insects, including bees. Most importantly, they also explain how previous ‘field tests’ that the big political decisions are being based on, “lack the statistical power” required to be considered as true ‘evidence’.

The authors conclude:

Their wide application, persistence in soil and water and potential for uptake by succeeding crops and wild plants make neonicotinoids bioavailable to pollinators in sublethal concentrations for most of the year.

Not only is this great news for bees, it also shows how imperative it is for governments and regulatory bodies to understand and critically assess ALL the evidence before implementing policy decisions.

© Manu Saunders 2013

Neonicotinoid ban eases the stress on bees

Kudos to the European Union for voting to restrict these insecticides. Although the moratorium is only temporary, and isn’t a total ban, it’s an enormous step in the right direction.

I hope Australia and other countries are galvanised by this news to provide greater support for low-impact agriculture.

Read my whole article on this at The Conversation news analysis site.

© Manu Saunders 2013

Genetic Monofication

Genetic modification (GM) has been on the radar for quite a few years – another really important issue that has been misrepresented and misinterpreted for too long to maintain any sort of clarity in the general public’s consciousness. The problems with GM (of crops or animals) are numerous and fall into three main categories, ethical, ecological and social…although it’s pretty hard to separate the three when discussing any given GM scenario.

Superweeds, superbugs (of both the insect and viral variety), reduced crop diversity, genetic pollution of non-GM organisms outside the GM field, increased suicides and legal intimidation in farming communities around the world, the infamous ‘revolving door’ between Big Biotech and US government agencies, claims that US embassies strategically planned to ‘penalise’ countries that opposed GM….take your pick and try and pinpoint one single dilemma therein, that is not somehow linked to another.

Yet all too often, the arguments for or against GM focus doggedly on one specific element, without considering how complex the whole subject really is. Continue reading

Pollution and Profit

Finally, some great news for those trying to keep their backyards free of coal seam gas wells. In world-first research, two scientists from Southern Cross University, Dr Isaac Santos & Dr Damien Maher, have found evidence of extremely high levels of atmospheric methane near coal seam gas (CSG) fields. Using a high-precision methane detector, Santos & Maher took thousands of air samples between Lismore (in northern New South Wales) and Tara (in southern Queensland), creating a pretty clear picture of methane levels across the region.

Tara is the largest CSG field in Australia and has been a hub of gas production for a few years now, whereas the Northern Rivers region (near Lismore) has lots of ‘natural’ or non-CSG methane producers, such as natural wetlands, sewage treatment plants, an airport and plenty of cattle. In northern New South Wales, the scientists found atmospheric methane concentration never rose higher than 2.1 ppm (natural background levels are around 1.8 ppm). However, around Tara, the methane levels went up as high as 6.9 ppm, with no recorded values below 2 ppm in this region. Continue reading