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March 15, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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Failure To Communicate – Gaseous Bovine Excreta, Ungulate vapour by-products, Herbivorous Nitrogen-phase emissions, Oh My!

First of all, I would like just to say… I was scooped! That scoundrel of a science advisor clearly managed to find himself an advance copy of the Salient’s blog section, and, knowing how significant an impact the venerable publication has, decided to base his keynote speech at the Science Communicator’s Association New Zealand conference, on the very topic of this blog! A mere day before this column appeared on Salient’s website! Coincidence? I think Not, Sir Peter Gluckman!

In all seriousness though, I’m really pleased to see the issue of science reporting in the media being addressed on such an important level. It shows how important this topic has become. Sir Peter Gluckman is the Prime Minister’s science advisor. I have followed his press releases, which I have always found to be balanced and informative writing about issues where science may affect government or policy, or which captures the public eye. He gave a very good speech shortly after the whole ‘climategate’ situation flared up for example, though thankfully the public in New Zealand seems not to have nearly as much inherent distrust for scientists as the public in the UK and USA.

That small rant aside, onto the actual topic of this week’s column, wherein I celebrate the opening of the New Zealand Ruminant Methane Measurement Centre. And just what is that, you ask? Simply put, it is a large sealed box (just how large I was not able to ascertain) in which one may put a cow, a sheep, or a similar grazing animal. The levels of methane gas in this box are carefully monitored, and the inputs to the animal (ie diet, atmosphere, humidity) can be controlled. By doing this, one can better understand what influences the amount of methane released by these animals, the ultimate goal of course being to reduce the methane emissions from New Zealand’s livestock, and thus reduce our impact on global warming. Oops! I mean climate change.

Nota Bene, the press release also states that animal welfare is a priority and that efforts are made to ensure the comfort of the animal being studied. This in any case is a good idea because animals under stresses of alien laboratory conditions tend to behave very differently from in the wild, or in domestic conditions. For example, you know how everybody knows that the female preying mantis bites off the male’s head during sex? Turns out that occurs only very rarely outside laboratories. It was probably mostly the fault of giant eyes peering through magnifying glasses and watching their every movement, which might understandably give a girl performance anxiety…

Over half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions1 are from livestock, so pursuing this kind of research is going to be necessary in order to lower greenhouse emissions as a country, and equipment like this is going to be of huge benefit to the scientists working on this problem. Take it from another experimental scientist, having the right equipment can cut the amount of time you have to spend on something in half or better. Imagine for example if instead of using a mechanical eggbeater, all you had to use was a fork. Far more time and effort, right? So all in all, I am really excited about hearing about the results that come out of the NZRMMC! But a question remains…

It’s unlikely that any of you reading this right now will have heard of the NZRMMC before now (which is partly why I wanted to highlight it). In fact, the only newspaper to run an article on this development is the Manawatu Standard. Yup, seems you have to go pretty far a-field to find science news these days! And yet, this story has it all. It’s a success story for a smallish New Zealand company (the centre is run through AgResearch), it has huge significance for possibly the most interesting science topic to the public, climate change, and to top it all off you could give it a cheesy headline about cows farting! How is it that this didn’t make the bigger papers?

One aspect about the science/media relationship that Peter Gluckman raised in his aforementioned speech is that the media likes to publish stories only about significant breakthroughs, eureka moments and giant steps for mankind. This portrays a view of science that is really quite different from reality. Almost all science is in incremental advances, such as this centre will surely be. I don’t know if that is the whole story, but what I do know for certain is that it is still tough to keep abreast of science news in today’s world, particularly if you want science news in New Zealand. I found the link to this story on www.scoop.co.nz under their science & technology section.

Until next time, may you search far and wide in your journey to learn about science.

[1] Aha! Look at me, using a statistic just like I told you to be wary of last week! My own analysis of this figure is: the main point is simple enough – that NZ has a large carbon emission problem relating to its livestock. In more detail, I wonder how that 50% is measured. In terms of impact on climate change, methane causes much more damage than carbon dioxide, so I wonder whether the 50% thing is measured in terms of total mass of carbon or volume of gas, or whether it is on some other scale where methane ranks more highly.

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  1. Jobeth says:

    I’m not quite sure how to say this; you made it exetremly easy for me!

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