One theme of this conference has been to start the urgent task of reviewing our rather inadequate and at times embarrassing science and technology policies. There were three main events of note on this. The first a motion on geo-engineering, the second a fringe on what treatments should be available on the NHS and lastly today we had a fringe launching the science and technology working group.
The geo-engineering motion, although well intentioned and certainly containing good points, made very robust claims on inadequate evidence. Conference soundly rejected it on the advice of outgoing policy supremo Brian Heatley (although it's an interesting area and I'd like to see more discussion on this). I think the fullness of the motion's rejection is partly a growing seriousness when scrutinising detailed scientific policy.
The NHS fringe was extremely well attended and Stuart Jeffrey, health spokesperson, ran the session really well essentially handing over discussion to the floor and just giving it a guiding nudge when need be.
I and others put forward a radical proposal, that treatments that claim to be of some benefit to a patient should all be subject to the same kind of scrutiny and scientific testing no matter what heading they come under. I don't care if it's chanting, injections or crystals if it's meant to make you better let's see the proof - if you can't show it works then let's not treat people with it.
Currently our policy is a little out of step with this giving alternative therapies a lower standard of proof to 'conventional' medicine. I don't think that's necessary. I'm not going to reject acupuncture or other treatments out of hand, but I just believe we need a level playing field when it comes to assessing the evidence.
Thankfully the meeting gave a clear mandate for change. It was not unanimous, there were some comments about people being allowed to choose the treatments they receive for example, but the mood is there. I actually think we should explore patient choice, but I'm not paying taxes to fund your essential oils.
Lastly we had the science and technology working group launch today. Cathryn Simmons has been taking a lead on this and invited freelance science journalist Martin Robbins to talk to us about his experience researching the Green Party's science and technology policies during the Euro election. I don't know how he felt it went but I thought it was an extremely productive session.
Martin gave a very measured description of a number of things. Firstly, the things he found when researching our policy. Some of it would make your hair stand on end. Secondly, the official response from the party when he approached them with a number of questions. Thirdly, he outlined the basics of what he thought evidence based policy might look like, particularly in regard to moral questions. Essentially if you want to argue that all animal testing is ethically wrong that's fine, but don't try to back it up with bad science - even if only to prevent yourself from undermining your own arguments.
I thought he had a very strong case and whilst it was a bit of shock at the time his article came out in the long run he has done us a massive favour by letting party members know that there are sections of our policy that simply do not adequately reflect the way we think. I think any urge to shoot the messenger has to restrained because the fault is entirely with the weak parts of our policy.
He's going to put his talk online so I wont cover the whole thing here, but the fringe certainly felt he made good, persuasive points and there was little dissent. There was much talk about what we were to do to put things right though. That process has already begun, although rightly with all policy making a radical overhaul will take time.
The health group is already assessing its policies and I hope we'll see something on stem cells and alternative medicines at the February conference (as well as the longer term commitment to overhaul this policy chapter). The science and technology group, which I'm involved with, will hopefully be moving motions in February addressing the pledge I talked about before.
I'd also like us to pass something that might be a bit of a token of good faith. A symbolic statement that says 'technology is an indispensable part of the solution to the problems we face'. Greens should be, and usually are, about embracing new technologies whether it's smart metres, renewable energy sources, or energy saving devices to name a few. I think we can find a way of accommodating the sensibilities of the deepest greens without having to retreat away from enlightenment values and the scientific method.