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March 04, 2011

Being Green does not mean suspicious of science

Until two years ago the Green Party had twisted itself into contradictory knots to accommodate both a scientific approach to climate change and the acceptance of such ill-accepted philosophies as homeopathy. Too often, says Jim Jepps, even the sensible things the party and its members had to say were tainted with distrust of, even downright hostility to, science and scientists. So what changed, and what does the future hold for the relationship between science and the Greens?

For me being a Green Party member and seeing science as part of the solutions to our current global problems are part and parcel of the same thing. A fundamental curiosity about how things really work and a willingness to look harsh realities in the face, even when they are frightening, seems to me at least to be shared by radical politics and by the scientific method.

However, not everyone connects the Greens and a pro-science agenda, and perhaps with good reason. In the past the Greens in England and Wales have too often allowed some of the very sensible things they had to say to be tainted with at times distrust of science and scientists and at others a downright hostility to them.

Two years ago we faced up to the fact that there were some glaring contradictions in our approach to science and technology. On the one hand we championed the evidence on the climate and were among the first in the political sphere to demand action on climate change, long before lip service to this issue became in political fashion.

On the other hand we singled out scientists to take an oath to protect the planet and suggested homeopathy would not have to comply with the same kinds of regulations and testing that other products that claimed to have medical benefits did.

This was a situation that would never bear public scrutiny. More importantly, many members had never been made aware of the 'official' approach and, when they did learn of it, were horrified, particularly by the opposition to stem cell research.

Over the last two years members have been working hard within the democratic process to get this changed. Out went the oath, out went the uneven playing field for homeopathy—let it justify its claims like any other remedy, if it can—and out went the policy on stem cells. That first stage of picking off the most egregious examples of bad anti-science policy was surprisingly easy.

We discussed and debated where to go and what was wrong with people both inside and outside of the party and at last weekend’s conference we turned a corner into a really firm approach to science.

We explicitly embraced the Haldane Principle that governments and parties can help set the overall strategic direction of publicly funded research but were not to interfere in the day to day funding decisions. We call for an environment of academic freedom for government policy advisors to ensure governments can at least hear advice they don’t want to take—no matter how politically inconvenient it might be to hear it.

We’ve also taken a step back from calling for a complex series of local to international commissions on scientific research—frankly they would never have been set up—in favour of more general principles to ensure ethical and academic standards.

Underlying this is a clear obligation to fight to ensure decent public funding for research and development in this country. By declaring that we believe this spending should be set at a minimum of 1 per cent of GDP we have laid a clear marker that this research is of enormous public value: for the economy, socially, and to advance human knowledge.

We cannot claim to be taking issues like climate change seriously if we are not funding vital research in this and other areas.

Policy is an area that will never be finished and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes and still have much to learn. But we have finally come to a point where we can say we are a pro-science party which sees human knowledge and scientific research as good in and of themselves as well as part of the solution to our problems.

Where we have differences with members of the scientific community, those differences should be based on the same principles as the differences within the scientific community itself—on a discussion of the evidence, not wishful thinking and dogma from either side. I’m looking forward to those friendly disagreements taking place.


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