Saturday, September 05, 2009

Day Three: Evidence based policy

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.

NHS treatments

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.

Sci-tech launch

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.


thehoatzin said...

Get rid of the homeopathy, anti-vaccination idiots, responsible research using animals and get on with stem cell research and you'd more than likely get my vote.

It's hard to point to "the science" indignantly or pompously wrt global warming and then to ignore it or point to "scientists with alternative views" when it suits.

Jim Jay said...

I agree if you mean change the policy and persuade people of the merits of evidence based science. I'm not intending on purging the party though! (even if I could)

Derek Wall said...

Got to see science in a social context and avoid techno fixes!

For example, the excesses of the big pharm companies with their dodgy monopolistic practices are a huge threat to the NHS and health globally.

Jim Jay said...

By coincidence I brought this up in the nhs forum saying that currently drugs are around 12% of the total nhs budget (last figures I saw) which is a historic high.

If we tackle intellectual property rights and drug company monopolies on drug productions we can bring this price down and address some of the undue influence the industry brings to bear. BUT that doesn't mean we should replace their influence with the influence of the multi- multi- million pound industry of the alternative therapies industry.

If by techno-fixes you mean (and I think you do) that we can carry on as we are but just stick mirrors in space or whatever I totally agree. However I do think we should be clear that technologies are going to be a massive asset in creating a fairer, happier world.

weggis said...

So you are prepared to rule out the potential techno fix that gives you everything you want because other techno fixes don't.


That is the whole point of science, to evaluate and assess options based on evidence.

ModernityBlog said...

"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."

What a lovely sentiment, but is it possible?

That streak of contempt for science which seems to emanate from some Greens is rather off-putting and particularly counterproductive when the issue of climate change is debated.

Still, good luck, I think you'll need it :)