Caroline Allen

Caroline Allen

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Green Party and Science: The Truth...?

The Green Party made some signficant alterations to its science policy in 2011. I was one of the key people involved in the process and wrote many of the amendments.
http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/st
I believe that our policy is now very pro-science, a couple of key points:
  • Scientific research requires proper funding. We value basic research and will ensure it is properly funded. We believe that it is important to have a wide body of research that is not funded or controlled by large corporations.
  • We will increase public spending on R&D to at least 1% of GDP.
  • We will ensure funding streams are long-term and ensure sufficient revenue streams are available for the maintenance and operation of all capital investments. We will separate subscriptions for international projects from budgets for research grants and pay those subscriptions directly.
  • We will follow the Haldane principle that the Government may guide overall strategic direction, but research councils decide which projects are to be funded
  • We will ensure that scientific advisors work in an environment of academic freedom and are able to always make recommendations free of political interference.
However we have recently come in for criticism due to our position on GM (we are against field testing and release into the environment). I will be writing to address this in more detail very soon. But something that really amazed me about the incredibly polarised debate was that so many people believe that the scientists involved in GM had all the answers, were without bias and have incontrovertible evidence.

As a scientist and clinician I am as positive about good evidenced based policy as the next person, but having made the journey from idealistic young scientist who thought science had the answer for everything, to a more experienced clinician, I have to sound a note of caution.
So when I'm looking at making evidence based policy my question and concern is always 'what evidence'?

In an ideal world we would have controlled experiments comparing all our possible options in a non biased way, then we could make the evidence based decision on which is best.
But, this isnt an ideal world and the problems we have are:

1. The evidence not being there at all ( a big problems in my field of Vet. Medicine) because people haven't looked, often because its not considered to be likely to be profitable.

2. The evidence only relates to certain options/ outcomes because others have not been considered.

3. Bias. Even the best scientists are likely to be affected by their own value systems, education etc. They are only human after all.

4. The influence of who funds research.
This is a really key one for me. Using the example of GM is it any wonder that we have a lot of research going on to prove great benefit- funded by large corps. Now I have met highly qualified scientists from overseas who have genuine concerns about what is happening in countries where GM is already out there. There is no doubt in my mind that we need more conclusive answers to what is happening where GMOs have already been released into the environment before we start doing it here, but who is going to fund this? Not the agribusinesses that's for sure. So we end up with concerns that have not been scientifically validated, does this mean they should be disregarded, considering the massive funding bias...

5. Finally as the science philosopher Popper asked, can we ever prove anything in science? An experiment is conducted with a null-hypothesis, we seek to disprove/falsify something as nothing can be definitively proved. A simple example often cited is about swans. Before the discovery of Australia you would have seemed quite reasonable to have claimed to have proved swans were all white. But once Australia was discovered this claim was disproved, as there are black swans!. Who could have predicted that?
As scientists we must always be aware of the limitation of our claims.
Thats why I worry when any scientists make great claims about absolutely knowing something, especially when it isnt at all clear that they have attempted to falsify the hypothesis.

I think these factors are enough to encourage rigorous questionning of any science presented to us- which is really the basis of a healthy scientific community.
Attempts to bully and stifle debate and the screams of being 'anti-science' are probably the most anti-science responses of all.

18 comments:

bosonquest said...

This is all just picking off low hanging fruit to avoid answering any of the legitimate concerns that have been raised. Of course anyone who believes science already has the answers is a buffoon—that's why we are trying to do research. But what of the more sensible arguments, such as the minimal risk of a self-pollinating crop causing cross-pollination with other crops, or the many protocols in place to prevent even the slightest risk of that happening? And why muddy the waters with talk of funding and agribusiness over a publicly funded trial whose results will be freely available?

But most egregiously of all, how _dare_ you talk of stifling debate and bullying while your party promotes the destruction of research by a group who _repeatedly_ rebuffed attempts by the Rothamsted institution to engage in public debate?

ejoftheweb said...

The problem with the GM debate is that it focuses on the wrong thing - the mechanism - rather than the outcome.
Modifying a genome by direct manipulation, by "conventional" breeding, or by changing the organism's environment is still modification.
For example, the commercial wheat genome was dramatically modified by conventional breeding during the "green" revolution of the 50s and 60s; I strongly suspect that changes introduced for rust resistance, ear size/stalk height etc may also have introduced more toxic gliadins leading to more widespread gluten intolerance. No checks were done. GM is far better regulated.
The problem with Monsanto's RoundupReady crops isn't, in my opinion, that they are GM, it's that they're designed to encourage more use of glyphosate (made by guess who) in monocultures.
Otoh, Golden Rice is a freely-licensed GM rice expressing beta carotene in the endosperm and could help address widespread vitamin A deficiencies in many developing countries.
But by focussing on the method, GM, rather than the outcomes, these many more nuanced arguments are lost in a debate which is still way too hysterical.

Unknown said...

Yes, interesting, focus on the mechanism definitely seems to be clouding the issue, and while the are are few irrational loudmouths involved there seems to be rationality and understanding on both sides of the issue.

As someone who had the privilege of making a few GM organisms myself while helping a PhD with a paper (and accidentally swallowing a few billion though sadly with no resulting superpowers) I don't feel inclined to believe that every GM organism is a raging threat waiting to destroy the planet, nor is every one harmless and beneficial: it's all shades of grey that needs experimentation, testing, and regulation.

I wonder how we can get over this mechanism issue, given the astonishing amount of horizontal gene transfer that seems to happen between species one way or another already. A cow or totally-synthetic gene in wheat is probably not as unnatural as our intuition suggests...

I'm against destroying science, and a flat-mate of mine was nearly burned to death in an arson attack (at night, I guess when the perp thought that no one would be around) at the uni, so I am particularly against violence of any shade, which can escalate, and does not advance actual understanding one jot. And no amount of warm feeling inside and honest good intention justifies bad behaviour.

Rgds

Damon

Caroline Allen said...

Before launching in to unpleasant and unnecessary attacks on my piece, that is v specifically in response to people actually claiming science isn't biased, why not bother to read it properly.
I very clearly state more is to follow on specifics of GM.
And I do not support destroying science, nor does the party.

Caroline Allen said...

Before launching in to unpleasant and unnecessary attacks on my piece, that is v specifically in response to people actually claiming science isn't biased, why not bother to read it properly.
I very clearly state more is to follow on specifics of GM.
And I do not support destroying science, nor does the party.

Dan Olner said...

It's a straw, er, non-gender-specific person that scientists claim to "absolutely know" anything. That's the sort of scientists are arrogant gods of certainty stuff I see a lot in climate denial circles. No scientist worth the name thinks that; all knowledge is contingent on learning more.

Certainty is impossible; we have to do our best to assess and minimise risk. As Steve Easterbrook discusses, that means a key factor is whether you believe our ethics and risk processes are functioning. Having looked into this case (and spoken to my plant scientist partner a lot) I just don't understand how anyone's concluding this trial is too risky.

That might come down to whether people think GM is uniquely risky when compared to techniques we've been living with for over eighty years like mutation breeding.

Unknown said...

Are you referring to me? I wasn't accusing you of anything as it happens... I would however be worried that appearing to support vandalism may encourage some less rational and more emotional individuals to do reckless and stupid things though.

Rgds

Damon

Unknown said...

And to be crystal clear, I didn't mean to suggest that anything that you said was such encouragement, but some senior Green figures apparently have been, which is distressing.

Rgds

Damon

Unknown said...

Or even, not just minimising risk, since life is risky and taking no risks would be dismal, but maximising benefit-minus-risk.

Rgds

Damon

Unknown said...

BTW, you have a small typo in your "about me" text, "involed". There is no charge for this service! B^>

Rgds

Damon

Caroline Allen said...

Hi Damon,
Not referring to you, to first response.
Thanks re typo, need to update anyway as election over.

On the point made by someone else that this argument is made by climate deniers, well yes, maybe they do. Just because someone you disagree with makes the same arguments it doesn't make the argument wrong.
What it means is that the science needs to be rigorous, that we need to properly address the opposing theories and consider alternate theories and that there is research funded on both sides. I believe that this is occurring in the field of climate change.

ejoftheweb said...

Yes - there is no such thing as a "scientifically-proven fact", just different levels of evidence, and the more the better. Which is why we need field-scale trials, better understanding and less anti-science "frankenfood" hysteria. It really shouldn't be simply a pro-GM/anti-GM debate, because direct manipulation of the genome is a fantastic technology that has huge green potential. It doesn't have to be used for barren industrial monocultures.

diffidentdissonance said...

How can the science be rigorous if you won't let researchers do their jobs?

bosonquest said...

Your party has beenpromoting the destruction of the trials here for several days while claiming not to support it: http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/london-assembly-member-jenny-jones-to-join-concerned-members-of-the-public-to-protest-against-gm-crop-trials.html

In particular, describing the event as including a "mass decontamination". This has been pointed out many times since its appearance, including on Ms Jones' own guest Telegraph blog post, but no-one has seen fit to modify the language or include a disclaimer.

I'm sorry if you find my post to be unpleasant, but I consider this to be reprehensible behaviour on the part of your party, and acting as though they are blameless will inevitably reflect poorly on you.

MBCooper said...

The reasons that there has been so much backlash against THIS particular action, endorsed by the Green Party, to destroy an experiment is because it doesn't make any sense. You seem to have decided that all the opposition you've come up against if from rabid pro-GM activists and not just people who can see that, for your own political reasons, all you want to destroy is a worthwhile, low impact experiment conducted by government scientists.

Your claim that people are bullying and trying to stifle debate is, to be honest, completely outrageous. YOU condoned illegally destroying an experiment because YOU personally disagreed with it. How is that not bullying?

You bring up funding bias: we know who is funding the Rothamsted research, the government funded BBSRC.

You bring up scientists claiming they "absolutely knowing something" without mentioning anybody specifically, probably because they Rothamsted scientists have been very open about the possible risks associated with open air experiments with wheat and have explained what they have done to mitigate those risks.

Your example for Popper's idea of falsifiability is hilarious in reference to this debate. What if someone had sunk Cook's boat for some spurious political reason, I guess we'd be left thinking that all swans were white for a few more decades!

I know you've said that this post is more generalised and not specifically about GMOs but if these themes are what you are going to expand upon in that post then I eagerly await how much more ridiculous you are going to make it.

Caroline Allen said...

This is my personal blog where I will write what I find intetests me. I'm not employed by the party and work, full time, as a vet.
At 1am in the morning this was an angle that interested me. If that makes me ridiculous in anyone's eyes so be it.
I will blog more on GM, when I have time, but right now I have evening surgery, then I might even go for a drink after work in the sunshine.

Rainbow Bob said...

Under organic cultivation, I believe that reliance is place on the health of the plant itself to resist pests, rather than pesticides. So this would render the need for this modification un-necessary. Other research might be more beneficial.

Caroline Allen said...

To the people who wanted to have a ding dong about GM the article you thought you were reponding to is now here: http://bit.ly/LEY7SK
On your marks, get set...