Want to feel smart but also read something snackable? Check out the Science Media Centre’s top 10 NZ science stories for the year.
From finding the alleged Golden State Killer to ‘gene-edited babies’ – it’s time to take a look at the issues that shook the science world over the past 12 months.
In New Zealand, an onslaught of environmental woes threatened our taonga, and we stepped up our defence against cattle and kauri diseases, our aversion to plastic and our policy response to threats brought on by climate change.
Further afield, we saw the cryptocurrency market crash, mourned the death of renowned genius Stephen Hawking, and watched a dying man take on Monsanto.
Below are our picks on some of the biggest national and international science stories that made headlines. Feel free to republish or re-purpose this content. Let us know if you spot any major omissions.
Plastic not-so fantastic: In August, the Government pledged to ban single-use plastic bags and opened a consultation process, which showed 92 per cent of submissions in support of a compulsory phase out. It will come into effect mid-2019. Biodegradable and compostable bags – and whether they are any better for the environment – was also in the spotlight, with the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment urging greater clarity around the definitions.
In November, David Seymour caused alarm by claiming Kiwis using reusable bags could die from food-borne illnesses, but his view was based on a debunked study from San Francisco – which Kiwi experts were quick to point out.
Mycoplasma bovis: The devastating cattle disease, first found in the South Island in 2017, “spread beyond all expectations” this year. In March, scientific testing on several infected farms confirmed the origin of the cattle disease was not endemic, so the Ministry for Primary Industries announced plans to cull more than 22,000 cattle.
In May, the Government announced an $886m eradication plan. More than 150,000 cattle will be culled as part of a 10-year process as New Zealand attempts to be the first country to successfully quash the disease. Imported bull semen has been labelled the likely source of the disease, but this remains unconfirmed.
The meth house myth: A major report from the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor denounced the need for testing for methamphetamine contamination in homes where manufacture wasn’t suspected, stating mould carried a greater risk to human health than third-party exposure to meth. The report led to the adoption of a new testing threshold and an apology from Housing NZ to the 800 tenants who were wrongly displaced by the needless testing, who are now being compensated for the disruption
The report was one of Sir Peter Gluckman’s last as chief science advisor. He was succeeded by Prof Juliet Gerrard in July, who will initially hold the position for a three-year term.
Meningococcal W: An outbreak of a deadly strain of meningococcal disease killed six people this year – three of whom were in Northland. As of late November, 29 people had contracted the MenW strain – including seven in Northland – prompting a targeted vaccination programme and emergency vaccination stations in the region. The Immunisation Advisory Centre’s Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says we need to take MenW “very seriously”, and a sudden surge in the strain in many countries has prompted huge demand for a vaccine that isn’t currently on our immunisation schedule.
Climate change policy: New Zealand has taken bold steps towards a greener future this year, with policy-makers targeting oil and methane. In April, the Government announced it would not hand out any new offshore oil and gas exploration permits in most regions. Then in June, the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill laid out how the Government plans to transition New Zealand to a low-emission economy by 2050. A discussion document follows earlier recommendations that suggested setting separate domestic targets for long-lived gases and methane – which had a shorter lifespan, re-igniting debate over the issue. An independent Climate Change Commission will be set up next year to implement the proposed Zero Carbon Act, but until then an interim committee has been set up to begin the low-emissions transition.
Biosecurity battles: If M.bovis wasn’t enough of a headache for MPI this year, a hearty helping of kauri dieback, stink bugs, and myrtle rust also created various curveballs. In February, car shipments were turned away at the border when they were found to be infested with brown marmorated stink bugs – which have the potential to cause billions of dollars damage to crops. Their enemy, samurai wasps, are at the ready to attack in the case of an outbreak, following pre-approval from the Environmental Protection Agency. Then in November, Newsroom revealed a ship bound for New Zealand was carrying stink bugs, but was stopped in Australia. Just this month, an eBay user in Oamaru had shoes turn up with 26 of the live bugs inside – which the buyer reported to MPI.
Fungal diseases kauri dieback and myrtle rust research received a $13.75m funding boost which will be administered through the BioHeritage National Science Challenge. In July, kauri dieback was found to be in a tree just 60 metres from Tāne Mahuta, however, DOC has confirmed Tāne himself is not infected.
Gene editing in primary industries: New Zealand was urged to take a good, hard look at its conservative approach to gene editing when it comes to primary production or risk being left behind. A discussion paper from the Royal Society Te Apārangi stated embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk. It was also one of Sir Peter Gluckman’s final rallying cries as he left the office of the PMCSA.
1080 back in the spotlight: In August, there was a new social media trend: Facebook live videos were being inundated with ‘Ban 1080’ comments, which were traced back to an organised effort to spur discussion about the controversial toxin. The campaign coincided with a hikoi to Parliament, which included protests around the country and culminated with dead birds and mice dumped on the steps of Parliament.
In September, eight cattle died following a drop over Waikato land, and 1080 was later confirmed to be the cause of death – which saw the Department of Conservation launch an independent review into the incident. Experts say, while not a perfect poison, 1080 remains the most viable and effective option we have in pest control and argued it posed no serious risk to humans in waterways.
Firefighting foams: A formal investigation, launched last year, into the use of certain restricted PFAS fire-fighting foams found some airports still had them in stock, despite their use being illegal since 2006. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is leading the investigation, served each airports’ fire equipment supplier with a compliance notice, ordering it to stop using PFOS and PFOA foams.
Seven water samples in Palmerston North tested above the guidelines for PFOS in September, but the EPA said it couldn’t reveal which sites were the source of the contamination. In a December report, the Ministry for the Environment found the foams pose clear threats to the ecosystem and identified insufficient data on PFAS, and “a complete lack of any toxicological data for NZ species”.
Mental health: The Government’s eagerly-awaited Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report was publicly released in December, following 26 public consultation meetings around the country. The report labelled parts of the current system outdated and inadequate and made 40 recommendations – including a target to reduce the suicide rate by 20 per cent by 2030 and reforming the Mental Health Act. It has been lauded for being ambitious, but criticised for being vague in parts. Cabinet will formally respond to the Inquiry report in March next year. The timeline will allow the Government to account for spending in Budget 2019, “although it will clearly take more than one Budget to address all the issues raised in the report,” Health Minister David Clark said.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.