Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thanks to Luisa

A huge big thanks to Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net's Latin America coordinator, for coordinating news here. Luisa was sporting enough to take on the responsibility and let Chris and Padma turn into gossip (or is it blog) mongers.

Just shows why it was a good idea to set up the IBSA – India, Brazil, South Africa trilateral paternership that includes science. It works great, I assure you.

Padma, SciDev.Net

Three Cheers for Aussie barley

Good news for beer lovers. Australian scientists are working on increasing beer supply from barley.

Scientists at the Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre ( in Victoria are hunting for genes that protect barley from sprouting before harvest time. Barley that sprouts before harvest is of no use to make beer: the starch has been destroyed and the grain can’t be malted. Tragedy!

The trick lies in developing barley grain that knows when to sprout. That means it should be dormant till the right time.

But pre-harvest sprouting is a complex trait controlled by many genes and also the environment.

Yumiko Bonnardeaux has located regions of the barley chromosome that may contain genes for dormancy which were not known before. She is now mapping the genes to identify the exact ones make the barley sufficiently dormant.

Here’s raising a toast to the gene hunt.

T V Padma, SciDev.Net South Asia.

And has anyone noticed the subtle message given out by the organisers? The panelists are rewarded with a cute small bottle of ....olive oil. Australian olive oil. Not Australian wine. Now we just have to get it back through customs and immigration ....

Christina Scott, who has lots of bottles clinking in her WCSJ backpack, having given three presentations at the conference - including switching the lights off to simulate a power cut

Toxic toads, rotten rabbits and wild dogs

Australian scientists are using new technologies to combat some perennial pests – toxic toads and insidious rabbits that are driving away the country’s cockatoos. All this is under the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre( and (, using new technologies to combat invasive animals.

Commonwealth for Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) ( funds scientists from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory project in Geelong ... which is somewhere in this big island ... to engineer a virus that could be used to control the revolting cane toad (Bufo marinus), a pest that was introduced from another island nation, Hawaii, back in 1935 to tackle an earlier pest, cane beetles.

The snag: cane toads over-stayed and over-bred. They now occupy over a million hectares in Australia and are depleting the country’s quoll (carnivorous marsupials, otherwise known as native cats) and goanna (Australian monitor lizard) population. The warty toads apparently have complex battle lines. Instead of attacking in a single formation, cohorts of cane toads attack at staggered intervals.

CSIRO scientists are trying to introduce genes into a virus that infects cane toads. The genes will stop the cane tadpole into turning into an adult cane toad.

The invasive animals centre is also trying to tackle another menace – rabbits that are being held responsible for the disappearance of the red-tailed black cockatoos. Locally called “karaks”, these iconic birds were the official mascot of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Rabbits are eating away the vegetation that supports the karaks.

The centre is also making new baits to trap wild dogs and foxes that are attacking domestic livestock.

T V Padma, SciDev.Net South Asia, trawling the exhibition stalls and chatting up the stall staff at the 5th WCSJ

On the other hand, in another seminar, Roger Short of the University of Melbourne auggested that if Austraians ate more kangaroos and less beef, that would make a major contribution to global warming. Kangaroos fart less than cattle, it seems - certainly, they fart less methane. And they are superbly adapted to drought conditions.

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net Africa, participant in the seminar Life and Death in 2020: How will science respond? chaired by John Rennie of Scientific American magazine

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

High opera, low comedy and the church of scientology

Science journalists at the World Conference of Science Journalists seem to be passing the “dedication to profession" test with flying colours! Two hard-to-resist temptations are in the neighbourhood of the conference venue, the Grand Hyatt hotel on Collins Street in downtown Melbourne. One is the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the other the males-only Swan Lake ballet at the Regent Theatre. No one has confessed to yielding to the temptations – yet.

As I said, the Grand Hyatt has interesting neighbours. The Church of Scientology (a.k.a. Tom Cruise) for one. Right near the conference venue. Science, Scientology - related only on spellcheck.
Meanwhile, the Australians treated us to an evening at the Melbourne aquarium on the banks of the Yarra River. The Latino delegation -- Laura Garcia from Argentina, Luisa Massarani, the SciDev.Net Latin America co-ordinator, based in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Valeria Roman from Argentina, Daniella Hirschfeld from Uruguay, and Ximena from Columbia, enjoyed all sitting around a shark tank. (A frequently-heard response from South African delegate Christina Scott, a paid-up member of the Cape Town Oceanarium: "OUR sharks are bigger than THEIR sharks!") The Latino delegation promised to dance if the uusual musical trio - dressed first in polar bear outfits and then in divers' gear, complete with flippers and saxophones, snare drums and tuba, as seen in the photo - would only play salsa. Sadly, the three Australian musicians said their only salsa was with chips.

A wise colleague from the developed world, giving tips on better science reporting for journalists from developing countries at a breakfast meeting on Tuesday, said we (the developing world journos) should go out of scientific conferences and hunt for more information outside.
I am all for it – I would like to have more information about new science of operas and standup comedy.

The temptation, err sorry information, is necessary for the survival of science news -- the 5th WCSJ noted how pop singer Britney Spears' marital troubles and the death of a starlet named Anna Nicole Smith are elbowing science news from the pages. All we have to do is emphasise the fun in science.
T V Padma, Scidev.Net South Asia

Planet Slayers and George "geologist" Bush

You're not convinced you endanger the planet with your lifestyle? Do a reality check on Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Planet Slayer game, online at Planet Slayer gets very specific, offering the age at which the player ought to have perished, for the good of the planet, after forcing them to reveal their expensive lifestyle choices in a quiz.

ABC chief executive officer Mark Scott had no choice. His colleague and employee Bernie Hobbs of the ABC science unit made him run the test out during the inauguration of the 5th World Conference on Science Journalists, in front of 500 or so reporters. At the end of the test, the result was that Mark should have been dead when he was 1.7 years old, with all the thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emitted as he flew around the globe and travelled in his car in Melbourne! (“I have teenage daughters” was his excuse.) As he (or you – try the game!) answered each question on lifestyle, a nice pink pig gets fatter or thinner in the picture, showing how you are contributing to global warming. Must say Mark took that with commendable composure. Must be an Australian egalitarian kind of thing. Neither Christina Scott (ex SABC) nor myself (ex Press Trust of India) can imagine our former bosses taking the grilling with such good humour. Or leaving us with a job at the end of it!

While on the topic of climate change, who can forget George W Bush Jr? But it turns out Bush spouted some accidental wisdom on the importance of good science information, according to US-based author and journalist Chris Mooney, from Seed magazine in the USA. When asked about the US preparedness with tsunami warning systems, at a press briefing on December 29, 2004, three days after the Asian tsunami, Bush meandered with his reply. But he did point out, “… I am not a geologist, as you know” . Mooney told a plenary session on biasing scientific information that science journalists need best available science information. Mooney talked about how the Republican administration under Bush interfered with reports on climate change, and science reports were increasingly edited by political people and often muzzled.

Incidentally Mooney’s next book, “Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle Over Global Warming” will be out next June. This follows his best-seller “The Republican War on Science”, which has been floating around the World Conference of Science Journalists here in beautiful Melbourne, Australia. Lots of reporters, no sightings of koalas or kangaroos. Yet.

T V Padma, Science and Development Network, South Asia

Monday, April 16, 2007

first day, double breakfast

Kimani Chege, the editor of Technews Africa, a monthly magazine published in Nairobi in Kenya, is also a regular contributor to the Science and Development Network website ( and a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists' peer-to-peer mentoring programme.
Kimani attended Monday's UNESCO workshop on science journalism, where this photo was taken, and on Tuesday attended the breakfast networking event for developing country journalists hosted by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). But one breakfast wasn't enough. He also attended "the big Australian breakfast" - claimed to be high in salt, low in water but with lots of fibre - presented by the Australian Centre of Plant Functional Genomics. He claims he didn't eat at the second breakfast, but was there to interview Dr Rachel Burton, research scientist with the centre, about the creation of drought-resistant wheat varieties - a big issue in both Australia and Eastern Africa. He says he didn't eat any drought-resistant wheat for breakfast.

European science journalists

European science delegates Kai-Anders Sempler (Sweden) and Hanns "Hajo" Neubert (Germany) appear somewhat baffled by blogging in the newsroom at the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia.


for more on related issues, go to!
Alexander Abutu Augustine, a founder member of the Nigerian Association of Science Journalists, may hold the record for the scariest, most frenetic visa race to attend the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia. (Seen here is Alexander Abutu Augustine with his German mentor, reporter Hanns "Hajo" Neubert, who is also at the conference.)
Triple A, as he's commonly known, was due to leave at 3 pm on Saturday April 14 from Nigeria's business capital, Lagos. He dutifully applied for a visa from the Australian High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, which deals with many of the visa applications from the continent of Africa. Oddly enough, for a journalist, AAA sent off his passport on time.
Even early.
Then he waited. And waited. The Australian High Commission, it seems, has outsourced visa applications to a private company, which prefers to deal with courier companies rather than nervous reporters.
His Emirates flight to Dubai and on to Melbourne was due to depart at 3:55 on Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning dawned, and still, no visa. "I took a taxi around 7 am to the courier company's offices in Lagos and there I was delayed for another two hours while I stopped them from sending it to my office (News Agency of Nigeria) in Abuja," says AAA.
The story has a happy ending: around 9h15, the visa was found and taken out of the pile of parcels meant to go to Abuja and then given to AAA. But there's a twist in the tale: Nigeria is currently under curfew as hotly-contested elections for the pivotal post of state governor are underway. Which meant that legally speaking, AAA was not allowed out on the streets at all, visa or no visa. The streets were deserted. The normally bustling city of Lagos was in virtual lock-down.
What's a good journalist to do? Ask AAA. He went around the military roadblocks waving his press card because media are allowed to circumvent the curfew if they are reporting on the elections. And now he's in Melbourne, covering the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists. "It's an opportunity to interact with veteran science journalists and learn the tricks of the trade," he says, looking remarkably relaxed after his ordeal.

opening day at the 5th conference

We hope that our Nigerian colleagues will be able to read this blog from the fifth World Conference of Science Journalists, opening today (April 16th) in Melbourne, Australia.

Why do we say this?

Because Diran Onifade, secretary of the World Conference of Science Journalists, came all the way from Abuja in Nigeria to point out to the organisers of the UNESCO science journalism workshop that internet is not always the solution to educating journalists in the joys and perils of science reporting.

"Online downloading can take such a long time that by the time the page appears, you have forgotten what you wanted it for," Diran said to much laughter on the 46th floor of the State Investment Centre.

Christina Scott (South African delegate) of SciDev.Net