Political aversion to research, science and technology costing New Zealand

Sometime ago I wrote about a war on science being waged. I return to this subject inspired by the National Party’s commitment to dealing with climate change, an issue it and its A.C.T. Party ally have largely viewed – and at grass roots still do – as a socialist conspiracy based on what they call wonky science.

There seems to be a fear in some corners of science. Reading peoples comments underneath articles on Stuff, and on Facebook make me sad for the people who dedicate their professional careers to bettering our understanding of the world around us and designing new technology and research new ideas.

Whether it is a report on the work being done to understand the geophysical mechanics of the Alpine Fault in South Westland, the ignorance or lack of understanding displayed by many is disturbing. The spreading of untruths that a couple of drills boring into a fault system hundreds of kilometres long is going to somehow trigger a major earthquake is as alarming as it is wrong. The reasoning for the research is commendable: to find out how close the fault is to rupturing and whether any of the findings can be applied elsewhere.

Likewise there is a matching distrust or similar fear of technology. Perhaps it is the loss of privacy that goes with having just a few mega companies providing the bulk of our information technology – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, Apple all possess incredibly smart technological brains to have achieved in just under two decades the revolution from dumb phones to smart phones; from small localized networks such Old Friends to Facebook. The ability to post a vast range of multimedia – music, videos, blogs, photos among others

But we should not let this fear of technology necessarily cripple us. During the same time it has become possible that even if no overall cure is found for cancer, some forms of it such as bowel cancer might be significantly reduced in terms of their potency. Perhaps with investment in medical science we can make that happen in New Zealand.

Is it the failure of politicians to keep up with research, science and technology that makes them distrustful of it? Then we need to put pressure on them to get up to speed. The explosion of drones for example requires some urgent legislation changes to require registration of drones, and to make sure that they cannot be used in ways that pose undue threats to privacy, aircraft around airports or in flight paths. Before a major commercial aviation disaster occurs this needs to be tackled.

Is it that toxic old “She’ll be right” attitude that has long cost New Zealand, whereby people assume that on a given day everything will be fine and we worry too much? More cause for getting rid of it then. More cause for the change in public attitudes that inspired me to establish this blog in the first place.

Is the cause possibly a fear of politicians that they will somehow run out of work if they make an obvious effort to address our numerous outstanding social, economic and environmental problems? If that is the case this is simply laughable because being humans like the rest of us even if they do tackle these ills in an honest way and try to do the job they were elected to do, enough mistakes are certain that no shortage of work is ever likely to exist.

Or, is there a conspiracy of some sort to keep New Zealanders wages down by not investing in higher education, the sciences and the trades so that we exhaust ourselves by working too hard? I initially thought that this was a crack pot theory conceived by some believer of alternative politics, but the failure of two successive three-term Governments to achieve meaningful wage rises makes the cynic in me wonder. But whatever the answer may be – whether it is one or more of the above ideas or something completely different – it is costing New Zealand badly. We could be so much richer both in terms of income per capita, environmental and economic performance. I really really cannot help but wonder if there is not some deliberate agenda to make science look devious and discourage the idea of abstract research.


National changes tune on climate change

National leader Simon Bridges has pledged to work with Labour and the Greens on establishing common ground on climate change. The announcement comes as part of a u-turn by National on an issue that until recently it had been quite cool on.

I find this quite interesting given that when Mr Bridges was a Minister of the Crown one of his portfolios was Minister of Energy and Resources. Mr Bridges in that role undertook to pass under urgency legislation that effectively criminalized the right to peaceful assembly on the high seas. Mr Bridges also met with executives from several oil companies, such as Anadarko who lobbied heavily for the Crown Minerals (Crown land and protection)Act 2013.

How will National work constructively with Labour and the Greens? To do that, they would need to get their M.P.’s on board – many, such as Judith Collins do not care much for environmental issues, and some have gone so far as to say so in public. National would then need to get its grass roots members on board, remembering this is a conservative party with a strong rural base and supported by businesses, farmers, industrialists and wealthy donors.

Getting all of them on board would be a challenge. Many would see it as undermining the economy. Industry would be reluctant to support changes to resource management law for example that tighten emissions controls and force them to spend money on installing scrubbers, despite the existing argument that the scrubbers would pay for themselves by enabling more efficient burning.

Part of this is no doubt intended to appeal to National’s Blue Greens, who are the segment of the party with concerns about environmental sustainability. The Blue Greens were delighted in April 2007 when the then Leader of the Opposition John Key said the key areas for the National Party would be economy, education and the environment. But during the 8 years Mr Key was in office the party largely paid lip service to the Blue Greens and I cannot help but wonder if it will wind up doing the same again this time.

It is not that there are no opportunities for innovation and job growth. On the contrary, one of the great opportunities afforded by the need to tackle climate change is unlocking green research, science and technology. This could be boosted by raising the percentage of the G.D.P. that New Zealand spends on research, science and technology which has been hovering around a mediocre 0.9% in contrast with other O.E.C.D. countries.

Will partisan politics wind up getting in the way of a multi-lateral approach involving cross party support from both Opposition and Government parties? One would hope not. New Zealand needs to tackle this issue, because the damage to our environmental reputation if we do not would be simply too much for a country of our size to handle.

So, I welcome National’s commitment to doing something about climate change. There is a lot of water to go under this bridge, but it is a start.

Public perceptions of e-waste in New Zealand

Between 72,000 and 85,000 tons of electronic waste accumulate in New Zealand each year. Electronic waste has many valuable minerals in its composition such as gold and copper, which can be found in commercial quantities and have considerable value.

Only about 1% of the e-waste that accumulates each year is ever properly recycled, dismantled or salvaged. The potential environmental risks are considerable – toxic elements such as lead and mercury whose poisonous effects are well known, along other not so well known but similarly toxic elements such as cadmium, can leach into groundwater, contaminate the soil and release harmful dust. All of these have potential vectors into the human body by swallowing, inhalation or touch.

However there is a growing awareness that this is not sustainable and risks causing lasting damage to New Zealand’s reputation. But also there is much wastage in gold, copper and other valuable minerals by the failure to extract them. Gold and copper are estimated to be dumped in e-waste at quantities of 600 kilogrammes and 600 tons respectively. There will be a market for that much of those two minerals.

As part of the academic requirements for my Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management, I am required to conduct original research. Knowing what I have mentioned above has inspired me to do mine in e-waste. My research question is:

What are the public perceptions of electronic waste in New Zealand, with a view to starting a public discourse on the issue.

To this end I am doing a survey examining peoples understanding of electronic waste as an issue, asking for their views on it and whether thei council is doing enough

If you live in New Zealand and are keen to participate, I would love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at robertglennie000@gmail.com to find out more – you will be given a survey in MS Word format to do. It is not a long one. Likewise if you have experience working with e-waste either in a planning, handling or other role, I would be very happy to hear what your thoughts are.


Mycoplasma Bovis decision devastating but correct

Yesterday New Zealand farmers found out the likely cost of a major biosecurity menace that has been found

The Mycoplasma Bovis crisis is at a critical level and the Government has made what looks like a gutsy call. Eradication of M. Bovis is the only solution and that it is going to cost around N.Z.$886 million to deal with over the time that the attempt to remove it from New Zealand is in progress.

Farmers, especially those in dairying have not always been popular in New Zealand. Whilst being a significant part of the economy and contributing over N.Z.$15 billion to it per annum in more recent years, there has been a significant environment cost. The cost has not just been a significant degradation of fresh water resources, but also a significant contribution to New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas output.

But if we put the negative aspects aside for a moment, there is no easy way to look at this. 160,000 cattle are going to be slaughtered in the near future, which whilst representing only 1.4% of the national herd, is going to devastate some farmers and their livelihoods. There are some who may have been farming their whole lives who will now find all of that hard work being slaughtered. A few may have to walk from their properties.

Federated Farmers New Zealand finds itself in rare agreement with the Labour Government about the direction that this crisis is going. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern found herself in agreement with F.F.N.Z. President Katie Milne and Dairy New Zealand boss Jim van der Poel who agreed that the one chance to clear M. Bovis from New Zealand is now and that eradication is the solution. All acknowledged the toll that this would place on farmers.

No one wants to see such a huge loss of animal life. It reminds me of the huge medieval response Britain made when Mad Cow Disease broke out there in 2001. That effectively crippled the entire dairy industry in Britain and costing 226 human lives as well as the lives of millions of animals. However the potential cost to New Zealand if M. Bovis is not eradicated is huge. It would have a lasting negative impact on New Zealand farming on the whole and on our reputation overseas, which is not something New Zealand can afford.

In the coming days, weeks and months, thousands of cattle are going to die. But if nothing done in those coming days, weeks and months, the cost is going to be much worse.



New Zealand’s megathrust earthquake problem

Scientists are drilling into the tectonic plate boundary off the coast of the North Island. They are trying to find out how close it is to rupturing and looking for clues to indicate levels of tectonic stress.

This is not something anyone should be surprised about. As a nation straddling an active tectonic plate boundary with both strike slip and dipping tectonic plate interface, we are subject to a range of future seismic hazards that at the moment are low risk, high consequence. Those unfortunately are drifting gradually towards high probability/high consequence – the longer it takes for one to happen the worse it will be when it happens.

This is why much research is underway both on land and at sea to understand the hazard posed by the tectonic plate boundary. Not only that, but to also understand how the tectonic interface works, whether there are geophysical or geochemical changes happening in the rock strata that might indicate how much time we have left.

A megathrust earthquake is one involving a large segment of dipping tectonic plate boundary that ruptures at once. Examples include the Tohoku magnitude 9.0 off the coast of Japan in 2011, the 2004 Sunda earthquake that unleashed a magnitude 9.3 earthquake. New Zealand has not had a megathrust earthquake in recent centuries.

This would be a devastating event if it happened in New Zealand. The energy released in the event would be immense – possibly 2000 times more than the It would involve the Hikurangi Trench rupturing from off the east coast of the South Island up past East Cape. The potential magnitude of the earthquake could be anywhere between M8.5 and M9.0. It would involve probably 5 minutes of sustained shaking – 3 minutes longer than the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake and comparable in length to the 2010 Chilean M8.8 event.

The earthquake would very likely trigger a tsunami. The major megathrust earthquakes of the last century have all triggered destructive tsunami – the worst in terms of casualties and overall damage without doubt being the 2004 Sunda event and the 2011 Tohoku event.

The message for coastal areas of New Zealand since the Kaikoura earthquake has not changed: LONG (lasting more than a minute) AND STRONG (can’t stand up)? GET GONE. And for all people caught in an earthquake that is not over in a few seconds and especially if at that point it seems to intensify, the message is “DROP (to your knees). COVER (under a doorway or desk). HOLD (on)”.