Not much sense of the Pacific

June 17, 2011

While preparing to cover this conference I came across a reference to a report in the PSA’s Pacific Science journal called ‘Developing a sense of the Pacific’ about an early Pacific Science Congress in 1923.

As I left the conference yesterday, my conclusion was that I hadn’t really got a handle on what it means to be a ‘Pacific scientist’. I wonder whether the attendees had either.

Perhaps my definition of Pacific science differs a little from that of the Pacific Science Association.  I would have liked to have seen more representation of the Pacific Island states (while there was money set aside for travel grants for developing country scientists, a Fijian researcher told me that the costs of her attendance at the conference had been significant).

But however you define it, I felt that I didn’t get my fill of Pacific science. It’s understandable that a conference on the topic of global change would involve a global rather than regional look at the issues, but I would have liked to have heard more about the impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change and food insecurity in the region, and what Pacific scientists can do.

The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and Petronas Towers

The convention centre and the Petronas towers - but where was business? (Credit: Flickr/mollyali)

And for a conference that took place in the shadows of the monuments to business that are the Petronas towers, there was little representation from the private sector. There was much talk of the need to reach out to the media and business but – as far as I could tell – I was the only journalist there and I met just one representative from business.

Researchers can talk to each other about the necessity of working with other stakeholders as much as they like, but if they don’t actually do so, such talk is meaningless. And as I mentioned in a previous post, there was little evidence of lively interdisciplinary debate.

I would have liked to have seen panel discussions where researchers, business representatives and policymakers had debated a topic – surely a good way of opening dialogue and taking up Zakri Abdul Hamid’s challenge for scientists to get more involved in policy.

I’ve said before that the conference is a great opportunity for Pacific scientists to get together, let’s hope that next time they invite some other stakeholders too.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Micronesia: the ultimate communications challenge

June 16, 2011

200,000 people spread over thousands of tiny islands in an area of 3 million square kilometres – a challenge to communications? You bet.

Chuuk, Micronesia

Chuuk in Micronesia (Flickr/mattk1979)

20% of the health budget in Micronesia is spent on sending people off their home island to a larger centre for treatment, so telehealth is important.

Micronesia is a satellite coverage blackspot, says Bruce Best from the Telecommunication and Distance Education Operation at the University of Guam, which is ironic when people on such remote islands are among those who could most benefit from using satellites for communication.

In his presentation yesterday he said that any technology installed needs to be corrosion proof, able to withstand typhoons and sea level rise, cheap, culturally acceptable and effective.

Larger islands such as Guam and Fiji use fibre optic cables but it’s expensive to maintain and hooking up each inhabited atoll is impossible. And even though satellite is available in some places, at $250-300 a month it’s too expensive to run for most of the smaller islands.

That’s where high frequency (HF radio) comes in. Best and his team install HF radios that can be hooked up to a modem and computer to send emails, including attachments such as photos of a health complaint.

A major issue is finding transportation to get to the most isolated atolls. Because of their exorbitant prices, journeys on a cargo boat are few and far between, so Best tries to hitch a ride any time he can on boats chartered by other aid organisations. And when he does go, he takes education and medical specialists with him to make the most of the trip.

And he can’t forget anything either – at the furthest points, you can be a month away from an aeroplane. He must keep very good checklists.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net


June 16, 2011

Jargon + confusion = little collaboration (Credit: Flickr/wburris)

As a science journalist, I like to think of myself as science literate. Even if I’m not familiar with a topic, I don’t tend to be scared by jargon or stumble over the odd acronym – I know they must mean something and I don’t mind asking (either a person or Google) to find out.

But over the past couple of days I’ve been confronted by powerpoint slides crammed to the edges with graphs and equations, text so miniscule it’s more like glancing at a newspaper from a distance, and sentences dense with acronyms. There’s even been the occasional bit of passive voice.

Now this is a conference for researchers, and no doubt scientists in the same or similar fields haven’t found such language or content to be a barrier – in fact, in many cases, speakers have been complimented on their presentation before I’ve even begun to digest it. The conference is an excellent opportunity for scientists to get together to discuss their areas of research interest, and in some cases communities have been making headway with setting up international collaborations – a great thing to see.

But if I can’t understand something, then doesn’t that mean that a researcher from another field might not be able to? Would a health researcher interested in disaster reduction be inspired by a graph plotting tsunami velocities, for example?

Seems like a barrier to interdisciplinary research to me.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

A research centre in every science centre?

June 15, 2011

Ever thought about science museums and science centres having their own dedicated research centres? No, me neither. But that was the suggestion of Leo Tan Wee Hin, president of the Singapore National Academy of Sciences, in the science communication session this morning.

The Singapore Science Centre

The Singapore Science Centre: home to research? (Credit: Flickr/Eugene Phoen)

He thinks it’s a missed opportunity that science centres, academies and universities get involved in informal science learning for the public but then don’t do any research into its effectiveness. After all, he said, these people are trained scientists, so they’re well-placed to carry out rigorous research into the impact of their activities.

“We’ll spend money on a pretty science centre but not on its results,” he said. “Most of the staff in science centres have PhDs, there is immense scope for the emerging field of informal science learning.”

Few developing countries have science centres, and their science academies, societies and universities are under-resourced. But they are an important mode of science communication in those countries that do have successful organisations. If countries heeded Tan’s words as they developed, perhaps this could be their chance to get in on the field and define its focus while it is still young.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Fish stocks in Asia-Pacific: pulling back from the tipping point

June 15, 2011

In his keynote address this morning Kenneth Sherman, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, warned that fish stocks in the Asia-Pacific region are hanging in the balance – a precarious position for a region where people get 80 per cent of their protein from fish.

Sherman was talking about the world’s 64 large marine ecosystems (LMEs), coastal marine ecosystems that are divided by natural boundaries. Research in 2007 found that all LMEs have been degraded by overfishing, pollution, introduced species and the climate – and degraded ecosystems can’t support the fish higher up the food chain that we humans are so keen on.

Skewered fish

A reprieve for fish stocks? (Credit: Flickr/St Stev)

Three LMEs in the Asia-Pacific region – the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the Indonesian Sea – are at particular risk, said Sherman, but all LMEs in the equatorial region are susceptible to climate change.

As temperatures rise, nutrients in these warmer LMEs are inhibited from mixing, reducing the productivity of the system – and the number of fish it can support, even as fish catches reported to the FAO are increasing.

Reversing this trend will require political will and nations working together as many LMEs lie off the coasts of multiple countries. The Global Environment Fund and World Bank are now funding a programme in which neighbouring countries agree to work together to restore ecosystems. Seventeen such projects are now in place.

One success story is the beginning of rehabilitation to a ‘dead zone’ in the Yellow Sea. China and Korea have agreed to reduce fishing and are replacing the lost protein with ‘integrated multitrophic mariculture’, a system in which kelp, abalone, scallops and sea cucumbers are grown in a layered pot, with nutrients trickling down from one to another.  The system also sequesters carbon and improves water quality.

A collaboration in the Coral Triangle between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is also being established.

So all is not lost, says Sherman. “We probably were in a downward spiral but we’re in not in one anymore.”

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Image of the day

June 15, 2011

Kiyoshi Kurokawa of the Health and Global Policy Institute in Japan delivered a lively keynote speech this morning on the topic ‘Age of uncertainty: Have we become wiser?’

His wide-ranging talk, which tracked knowledge generation from the rise of the printing press to a world in which ‘Googling’ is a verb, took in the population explosion, globalisation and the role science can play in solving global challenges.

While he didn’t actually answer the question, he got a few laughs along the way, particularly for this picture showing humankind descending into obesity.

Are we getting wiser? (Credit: SciDev.Net/Nightingale)

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

It’s not all about the numbers

June 14, 2011

Three of the four presenters at Thailand’s ‘Strengthening Scientific Research Capability’ session this afternoon had a slide devoted to comparisons of Thailand’s science statistics with other countries.

The focus on two big indicators – percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on research and development (R&D) and number of researchers per 10,000 people – “shows just how concerned about this we are”, said Montri Chulavatnatol of the National Research Council of Thailand.

Thai researcher

Thailand is trying to create quality researchers (Credit: Flickr/Eurofruit)

Thailand currently spends around 0.26 per cent of GDP on research and has 5.4 researchers per 10,000 people – not favourable when compared with South-East Asia’s science superpower Singapore, with 2.36 per cent and 60:10,000.

But during their showcasing of Thailand’s efforts to improve the country’s science and technology (S&T) sector, the speakers emphasised that simply having more researchers is not the way to go; quality researchers are needed: those that can produce high-quality research that meets the country’s needs, linked to a receptive industrial sector.

One way of doing this is to train researchers in-country, said Vichai Reutrakul of Mahidol University. Sending a PhD student overseas to train can cost 8-10 million Thai baht (US$260,000-330,000) but training researchers within the country costs more like two million baht (US$65,000). To do this, investment must go into the S&T sector, ultimately strengthening the sector at home rather than PhD students returning with a doctorate but no prospects for using it.

After the session, Chulavatnatol told me that he hopes people won’t get too wrapped up in thinking about numbers, and that the success of a country’s S&T sector depends very much on the country and its level of development.

“A least-developed country could spend 10 per cent of their GDP on science but they wouldn’t miraculously have an excellent S&T sector. And, similarly, if a country can produce excellent science on a smaller budget then that’s good too,” he concluded.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

If boulders could talk

June 14, 2011

“Where do you come from?” is a common question between delegates at conferences, and the 22nd Pacific Science Congress is no different. But it’s a not a question that you would usually associate with boulders.

Boulder moved by tsunami in Samoa

Where are you from? (Credit: US Geological Survey)

Coastal boulders move only when there is a major event such as a tsunami or storm surge, so, if you know their size and density, you can work out how much energy is required, and therefore the power of the tsunami or storm surge, to unceremoniously move it.

That’s why, as Adam Switzer, from the tectonics group at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, explained in a session this afternoon, researchers need to know where boulders washing up on coastlines or being hurled further inland have come from.

But researchers studying an event after the fact rarely know boulders’ original positions. Enter GeoBoulder, an online portal that aims to collate information about coastal boulders all over the world – and make it available for everyone.

The idea is that users will use a simple form to upload information about boulders in their area or that they have studied. This will help researchers study events in the immediate aftermath, as well building up a picture of how boulders move during tsunamis and storms that can be used to reconstruct past events.

But how does this help those living in coastal areas vulnerable to tsunamis and storms? Non-research applications haven’t been a priority, said Switzer but he can envisage uses for local authorities aiming to mitigate disasters.

For example, boulder movement can indicate how far waves might move inland.

“If you’ve got a seawall constructed from the same kind of boulders that were moved by a tsunami up the coast, you could use it to work out how far those boulders could travel in a similar event,” he said.

The GeoBoulder website will become active later in 2011.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Sustainability science: Pacific Science Congress 2011

June 13, 2011

Credit: PSC

Researchers from all over the Pacific region are gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this week (14–17th June) for the 22nd Pacific Science Congress.

Held every four years, Pacific Science Congresses, organised by the Pacific Science Association (PSA) are an opportunity for scientists in the region to get together — particularly important for those that live and work on in small Pacific island states.

The PSA aims to facilitate science that addresses the main problems in the region and the ambitious theme for this congress is “Asia Pacific Science in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges of Global Change”. In his welcome message on the congress website, PSA president Congbin Fu boils this down to ‘sustainability science’ — figuring out how the needs of the present can be met without compromising the future.

PSA defines the Pacific region as “all countries and islands within and bordering the Pacific Ocean”, but sharing an ocean doesn’t mean sharing sensibilities, so hopefully there will be a lot of lively debate about how the countries of the Pacific region can meet 21st century challenges, from the changing climate and deteriorating ecosystems to emerging infectious diseases. And with a membership diverse enough to include the United States and the small Pacific islands states, differences of opinion are bound to crop up.

Through this discussion should come new collaborations, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for new connections in the Pacific science network, both between different countries but also different disciplines — vital in a field “defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs”.

The organisers have set themselves no mean challenge — we’ll see over the next few days how successful they are.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

Pacific Science Congress conference blog

June 10, 2011

Read Katherine Nightingale’s blog live from the Pacific Science Congress in Kuala Lumpur, which is focusing on meeting the challenges of global change.

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