Greens must get better at communicating our support for science

Posted on June 7, 2012 by | 29 Comments

The Green Party is more pro-science than any other party. Party policy commits 1% of GDP to public funding for science research. Whilst Labour, Lib Dems and Tories increasingly demand that researchers demonstrate the immediate commercial viability of their work, Greens argue that we should fund science for its own sake, because discovery is key to civilisation.

Even on areas where we once were a little wobbly, various conference motions in recent years mean we can now be proud of our polices. We’ve ended our bizarre opposition to stem cell research. Whilst Labour, Tories and Lib Dems have been happy to allow the NHS to keep funding homeopathy, Green policy says that the NHS should only fund medicine which has a clear scientific evidence base for its efficacy.

I say all of this because Green Party AM Jenny Jones recently caused yet more controversy by supporting activists taking action against GM trial crops, and some of the science lobby have jumped back on the attack – Greens are anti-science, they say – this proves it once more.

For many of us in the party, this accusation is maddening. It is true that there are some Green members wedded to old hippy views of scientific research – people who believe in homeopathy or acupuncture. But this strand is not unique to the Green Party – the main Parliamentary advocate of the quack cure corporate lobby is David Tredinnick, a Tory.

I joined the Green Party in 2001 because I had been weaned on science. As a child, it was terrifying to read reports of the amassing evidence of dangerous climate change, resource depletion, planetary destruction. It was an editorial in New Scientist which persuaded me to oppose nuclear power – on the grounds of cost, waste disposal, and depleting uranium reserves. Today, I read Ben Goldacre, am a massive fan of space exploration and recently hand painted a tardigrade T-shirt. I see ‘alternative medicine’ as an interesting case study in the zenith of post-modern capitalism. You get the picture. I am typical of my generation in the party – and many Young Greens were as quick to slam Jenny Jones as were Telegraph columnists or skeptics.

In a context in which other parties are rapidly driving a steak through the enlightenment notion that research is good in itself, it is laughable to accuse the Greens of being the anti-science party. But we do need to get better as a party – both at communicating what we think, and, sometimes, at distancing ourselves from our members who disagree with our policies.

The recent Jenny Jones incident is a classic example of this. You don’t have to be anti-science to be opposed to GM crops. Any Ben Goldacre fan knows how little we can trust large corporations with medicine. Similarly, we can’t trust them with food.

Look at farmers movements across the Global South and you find millions who stand against GM not because they see it as “frankenfood”, but because they see it as an attempt to privatise seed. They see it as the enclosure of yet another commons – where everyone once had the right to use whatever seeds they could find, companies are now creating crops which they can patent, and enforce their legal rights over. It doesn’t matter if the first stage of such crop research is public – as with medical research, privatised patents are built on the back of public data. If, like these farmers movements, you see the battle against this corporate takeover of food as key to the survival of much of humanity, then it is reasonable to want to fight it every step of the way.

This battle is crucial. As Amartia Sen and others have repeatedly pointed out, famine doesn’t happen because we don’t produce enough food. It happens because of a failure to distribute food. During the famous “do they know it’s Christmas” famine, Ethiopia’s farms produced a surplus of food. During the potato famine, Ireland exported grain to the UK whilst its people starved. Today, we produce more than enough to feed the world. People starve not because of crop failures, but because of market failures. By introducing monopoly suppliers on whom farmers are likely to start to depend, GM makes things worse, not better.

You don’t need to be anti-science to want to fight against specific research into the development of a new type of bomber which you know will be used to kill people. Similarly, you don’t need to be anti-science to want to fight every step of the way against the development of seeds which you believe will be used as a tool to coax control of food from farmers: the comparison may sound harsh, but in a world which produces more food than it needs but in which one in seven don’t get enough, ownership of seeds is as much a matter of life and death as is ownership of hawk jets.

So we should fight GM crops in solidarity with the farmers movements of the global south. We shouldn’t sacrifice this fight for PR reasons. But it is useful to remember that Greens have a reputation for being anti-science. In order to shake this reputation, we need more than the right policy. We need to work hard on communication. If prominent party members are going to support protests against crop trials, we need to be clear why: we stand against the corporate control of our food system. This is a part of that fight.

More importantly, actions speak louder than words. No matter what we say, supporting people who are protesting against any research looks “anti-sciencey”. So, perhaps it’s time to think hard not just about what our pro-science policies are, but about what we are doing about them. Anyone up for occupying BiS in support of the Haldane Principle?

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Comments

29 Responses to “Greens must get better at communicating our support for science”

  1. Ben YoungNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    So with the world needing more than ever a philosophical locus for dissident science, Adam you want the Greens to cleave to the Guardian’s witless infra-populist agenda?
    ‘Science’ and ‘the public presentation of science’ are fundamentally different things. The latter is always at best thirty years behind the former; normally never gets anywhere near it; and is what is left of truth after it’s been brutally worked over by politics, fads and finance.
    We can certainly play the game of engaging in the ‘public communication of science’, but always remember the adage: If you wrestle with a pig, don’t complain when you get covered in sh*t.

  2. Steven SumpterNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    I take your point about the overall position regarding science of the Green Party relative to the other parties. In fact in the piece that I wrote about the Rothamsted controversy I expressed my frustration with all political parties. If I were to re-join any part it would still be Green, even with some strange ideas on the fringes.

    I have to disagree with you about fighting GM full stop though. Perhaps it is the key to feeding the world, perhaps not, but to stamp on research just because you believe that we don’t need it IS anti-science. Science only makes any gains when it strikes out in previously ignored directions.

    I also believe that you are attacking the wrong target. You are writing off a whole strand of scientific research because of the awful behaviour of big business and bad patent laws. I consider that foolish.

  3. Bex HolmesNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    Thank you Adam for this blog post, it is reassuring that this has not gone unnoticed by high-profile members of GPEW. However from my point of view this still comes a little late especially when trying to tackle negative media coverage, immediate loss of confidence in the party, loss of members and criticisms from members of the skeptical community. Below is summarised version of a response I gave for an interview for the New Humanist magazine.
    To be clear the Scottish Green Party (SGP) of which I am a member, is a separate entity from The Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW); and therefore has different policies and of course different politicians (particularly of relevance on this issue).
    When it comes to GM there is a line. A line that was crossed. That line is the difference between publicly funded, non-profit based scientific research and the intents of multi-national corporations in our global food system. The latter of which does genuinely concern me, as well as whether the science should need to be justified and can. The failure here of The Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) was their inability to differentiate between the two by negligently allowing a press-release to be published which goes against party policy AND in more general terms, what I perceive to be the role of political parties in our society.
    Jenny Jones, the member to which the press-release refers, has the right as an individual to join a non-violent protest on public land, based on her personal beliefs regardless if based in scientific fact or not. However, there is a clause to that statement. As a high-profile member of a political party she also has the responsibility for representing party policy and the membership by her actions and opinions. As with any organised social group not all members agree on every issue, for turn of phrase we are not sheep. The vulnerability here comes when those in power in the hierarchy of the party hold strong views on an issue which are not representative of the membership at large.
    Furthermore it should not be the role of political parties to support demonstrations such as these; they should enact their influence at a government level, through the correct channels in a professional manner. The ‘environmental movement’ (as in pressure groups) needs to be distinguished from established political parties regardless of whether they have common interests.
    GPEW is comparatively small compared to other political parties. The reason I mention this obvious fact is that because of this, the demographic of the membership which makes up the party, has an even greater influence on policy than it otherwise would. With this in mind, if you are already a member, consider yourself to be scientifically literate, a skeptic, a rationalist and are concerned by certain aspects of GPEW science policy or its leadership I politely insist you become actively involved in the Party. You, have the ability to change policy and with the upcoming internal leadership elections a perfect opportunity to steer the party in the right direction.

  4. Peter GarbuttNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    I agree with just about all your points, Adam. And Steven, I also agree that it seems foolish to be anti-GM research when it’s pure science unalloyed by commercial gain.
    But we live in a commercial world; there are no laws that say companies cannot make use of pure research, indeed own that research, and therefore the “rights” to its findings. The law positively encourages such behaviour. The law does not protect the potential victims of the commercial exploitation of the research, it barely recognises the damage done.
    So, agreed, we should be active on the legal front, and perhaps actions that look like vandalism should be stopped, and more communicative methods found to oppose the research, or to ensure the research does NOT fall into commercial hands.

  5. gimpyNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    There seems to be a bit of a problem with your argument:

    “You don’t have to be anti-science to be opposed to GM crops. Any Ben Goldacre fan knows how little we can trust large corporations with medicine. Similarly, we can’t trust them with food.”

    Your party’s position on GM is no trials, whatsoever, even if not commercial. If you were truly anti-corporation then you would support massive state investment in GM crops as an alternative.

    But you don’t – why?

  6. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Bex – you are by no means the first person to criticise Jenny on Bright Green, and I am not here to defend her – that this was handled badly is part of the point I’m implying above.

    However, I disagree about what the role is of political parties. All of the successful political parties of the left around the world have grown out of and been inextricibly bound up in social movements of one sort or another. You can’t seperate electoral politics and non electoral politics, and when you do, you end up with Blair.

    Steven and Peter, what this comes down to for me is where you draw the lines around research ethics. I made the analogy with guns intentionally – you can look in the abstract at a new kind of laser aiming device, and say that trials with it are just science. But if it is clear that they are going to be used for killing people, then there is a clear ethical implication of that. I know that academic research ethics committees don’t look at the likely end use of research, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that they should. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for society to comment on/protest against those end uses.

    Now, there is a question about whether vandalising that research is OK, but Jenny made it pretty clear that, though she supported the demonstration, she didn’t support ripping up crops, so perhaps that’s a debate we can have elsewhere/at another time?

    And if we’re talking about targets, then that’s a legitimate point – we can be against GM, but not prioritise that above being against corporate control, and can focus on the corporations instead of the research. ANd that’s certainly where I tend to try to put any effort I put into these things…

  7. Adrian CrudenNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    I’d have to agree with Peter that given the misuse of research by large corporations – whether it is research funded by them or by the state (and the current Con Dem Government is busy opening up all public research for uncopyrighted use)- that public funding needs to be deployed wisely. To that end, I am just as suspicious of the thinking being the Haldane principle, which cedes responsibility for deciding on research to researchers, deliberately removing politicians from the frame.

    I don’t think it is anti-science to take the view that democratically-accountable decision-makers should have a significant role in prioritising the objectives for research and taking some view on, for example, the acceptable levels of risk. Why should a scientific researcher be the determiner of how public funds are deployed and what qualifies them to decide what is an acceptable level of risk for the community?

    There have been all too many instances of irresponsible research where the plight of individuals have been set aside for the supposed search for the truth – consider the cancer experiments on black and poor Americans, or the exposure to radiation of British service personnel by public scientists back in the 1950s.

    The GPEW policy for funding scientific research (coupled with our commitment to tame corporations – and hopefully abolish them!)is welcome; but while we should not squash science, it is important it works for the community, not for corporations but neither for the whims of individual researchers.

  8. Rob BrookesNo Gravatar
    June 7th, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    I am a bit of a technophile and am very pro science. But I don’t think it is antiscience to very wary and critical of the funding of science to research things that seem unlikely to improve the lot of life on this planet but likely to be used to benefit and be manipulated by the depraved rich. Quite a lot of research is cruel to animals and is aimed at mitigating the effects of our misuse of knowledge, science and technology in the first place. GM food,most nuclear and cancer research seems to me to be in this category. I fail to see any reason why we should be keen to introduce GM foods and so see no reason for the research. When we have such huge problems in the world basically caused by greed and ignorance to spend money and lend credence to technologies that could make things worse when we know already technologies to make things radically better seems weird and stupid to me.
    Rob

  9. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 12:13 am

    For reference, here is the Green Party policy on GM:

    Genetic Engineering

    ST361 The Green Party accepts that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign and may lead to enhanced quality of life, but believes that the release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) into the environment potentially poses substantial risks to biodiversity, human health and animal welfare and that there is currently insufficient research to quantify risks. In addition, genetic engineering of animals can cause significant suffering.

    ST362 Control of research and the use of genetic engineering by a few multinational companies threatens the autonomy of farmers and health services and makes profit an underlying motive for the use of GMOs.

    ST363 We believe that:

    1. The precautionary principle must be applied to research using genetic engineering.

    2. Research should be genuinely in the interests of humanity.

    3. Animal welfare and biodiversity must be protected in research (See also AG623, AR408, AR412 ).

    ST364 The Green Party supports a moratorium on the release of GMOs into the environment and on importation of food and feed containing GMOs, pending comprehensive assessment of the safety of GMOs with regards to the environment, biodiversity and human and animal health. We support a legally-binding protocol making industry liable for cross-contamination and any adverse effects of GMOs.

  10. Sam MasonNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    There’s been a clever PR campaign around this GM tial. There are actually big questions about whether this was just public science free of commercial taint: http://spinwatch.org/-articles-by-category-mainmenu-8/46-gm-industry/5505-science-one-whining-greenies-nil

  11. aliceNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    Noooo. Not the Haldane Principe. I’m hoping that was a joke.

    Do science well. Do critique of science policy well too. Don’t do it in the worst ways your critics do. You can actually be a lot cleverer than them.

    Good piece on Haldane: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-88.html

    Go talk to some actual experts on science policy, not just the noisy sci bloggers.

  12. Rebecca NesbitNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    You don’t have to be anti-science to be against GM crops, but you do have to be anti-science to support Take the Flour Back. If Jenny Jones had engaged with the issues and the scientists I would very much have respected that. I look forward to hearing the Green’s scientific and social arguments, not to hearing that Jenny Jones is going to join protesters for an afternoon of guitar playing and conspiracy theories.

    I blogged about it here: http://thesciencesays.southernfriedscience.com/gm-debate-scientists-and-protestors-arent-polar-opposites

  13. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    A colleague made an interesting observation following this controversy, that Take the Flour Back were operating as though social media and blogs never existed. Their communications tactics were stuck back in 2003 when the UK last had a big national debate about GM, and when science bloggers were few and far between. Every time they put out some info – from the obviously false to the poorly substantiated – an army of tweeters and bloggers ripped them to shreds. Caught in a maelstrom in which considered debate became near-impossible, Jenny Jones and the Green Party Press office failed to argue their case as they – rather than Take the Flour Back – became the focus of much of the attention. Even when they were saying the “right thing”, this got lost in the noise of blogs, tweets and newspaper columns, much of which was as poorly informed and often bullying as some of the rubbish Take the Flour Back were putting out.

    Incidentally, as a young green I object to the way in which you suggest that “many Young Greens were as quick to slam Jenny Jones as were Telegraph columnists or skeptics”. Why did anyone slam her for attending a protest for reasons you share? There is a slightly sad tendency in a clique of people involved with the Young Greens to ostracise prominent Green politicians (not just Jenny), and to take a very tribal attitude towards them, which doesn’t help anyone.

    I won’t go into that in any more detail because I don’t want to rake over people’s work in public.

    But one thing to consider, Adam, is what you are asking of one member of staff in the party office. I completely agree with your penultimate paragraph, but worry that it’s not something we can fix with some blog posts. It might be useful to organise a fringe workshop at a conference with press officers, and a workshop at an AGC conference, to discuss your points with the people on the front line. If the Rothamsted protests show us anything, it’s that communications work is a good deal more complicated than saying the right thing.

  14. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    Tom –

    1) interesting observation.

    2) on Jenny and Young Greens – yes, that’s my point – like Jenny, unlike those particular young greens, I am against GM. They slammed her for attending a protest whose concerns I share because unlike me, they don’t share them. I think it’s a little unfair to imply tribalism against Jenny just after I have written a piece explaining why I agree with her.

    3) what am I asking people to do? yes, as I say in the last para, the point is that actions speak louder than words – we can say whever we like. Obviously there isn’t one thing, but if we started to do more about our policies on science funding and be more aware of not playing to this trope, then things would slowly turn around.

  15. DavidCNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    Excellent commentary, Adam. Thanks.

    The continual attempts to portray the Green Party as “anti-science” is maddening, as you say – and I suspect it might be part of a deliberate strategy to discredit ‘green’ politics by the polluters and ‘free market’ neocons.

    You are absolutely right that we should not apologise or hide our opposition to GM crops. We must repeatedly state that GM crops are not about “feeding the poor” as the GM lobby tries to spin. They are all about corporate control of the entire food chain to secure unimaginable profits and terrifying political power.

    On the subject of the Rothamsted drama, everyone should read the following:

    * The inside story on the Rothamsted GM wheat trial debate. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1392831/the_inside_story_on_the_gm_wheat_trial_debate.html

    It was not a case of ‘humble scientists versus anti-science greenies’ as they tried to portray it. It was more a case of ‘an extreme rightwing PR agency (http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Sense_About_Science) and GM industry shills versus concerned and informed citizens’.

    The Rothamsted experiment is a coordinated and devious attempt to drive a GM wedge in to British agriculture – and you can be sure that Monsanto will use that wedge to drive its products in behind it. Given that there is a GM crops lobbyist installed as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it’s the perfect opportunity to force GM crops on to the British public.

  16. DavidCNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @gimpy

    > “If you were truly anti-corporation then you would support massive state investment in GM crops as an alternative. But you don’t – why?”

    Because that hypothetical will never exist. Monsanto owns over 90% of global GM acreage. If GM crops are allowed in the UK then Monsanto will come storming in. The socio-economic effects of that would be horrific.

    Also, there are other reasons to oppose GM crops. Contamination of wild species – it’s already happened with e.g. herbicide resistance in wild canola. Monoculture – the dangers of this should be obvious. Unexpected consequences – examples of the hubris of scientists are legion when they claim “nothing can go wrong”.

    And to underpin it all, we do not need this technology. Organic methods are more than capable of feeding us all. In fact, organic agriculture is going to become increasingly necessary as Peak Oil bites down. Industrial agriculture with its reliance on massive quantities of synthetic fertilisers will become non-viable.

  17. DavidCNo Gravatar
    June 8th, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    @Rebecca Nesbit

    > “…you do have to be anti-science to support Take the Flour Back.”

    Really? Let’s see how sciencey you are – from your blog:

    > “…birds and small mammals are kept out of the trial.”

    Here’s the fence: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/images/2012/05/495583.jpg

    That will keep out ostriches, penguins, and very large mammals. It will not keep out any flying bird, nor field mice and voles. Therefore the GM trial is not secure and contamination of surrounding crops and wild species is possible. Contrary to the soothing reassurances of this GM propaganda exercise, it is entirely possible for GM wheat to ‘infect’ non-GM plants: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0029730

    So, your attempt to smear anyone who agrees with the aims of TtFB as being “anti-science” falls flat very quickly when we see that you are writing obvious nonsense in defence of the GM trial.

    > “There were some outrageous claims that Sense About Science … was acting in the interests only of big businesses…”

    There’s nothing “outrageous” about the evidence. It is damning. Here’s another article that makes it very clear: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1392831/the_inside_story_on_the_gm_wheat_trial_debate.html

    Your blog post looks suspiciously like the kind of pro-GM apologetics and propaganda that ‘Sense About Science’ are clearly pushing. In fact, I just looked at your bio which says you studied at Rothamsted and now work as a PR agent. Hmmmm.

  18. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    June 10th, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    Adam, sorry, I misread the bit about Jenny so exclude you from the tribal anti-this-and-that-person camp :-)

    I do think some conference workshops with media people are essential, I mentioned it to Caroline Allen last night. What we’ve learned from this recent episode is that it’s not enough for some sciencey members to do their thing, we need to engage with those who are the public face of the party. We could help develop their skills, work out some basic principles they could follow (e.g. asking “what’s your evidence?” for every claim made in a press release before putting it out), and discuss how policy people can effectively support them.

    It would also be good to do this through the AGC in order to reach councillors and target ward candidates. Local parties are vulnerable to having one or two strong-minded members who are passionate about an issue that’s based on bad or slightly wobbly science. One classic local issue is incineration, where some solid arguments about the waste hierarchy, energy supply and genuine air quality issues get clouded with a lot of health scaremongering. Like GM, we can then look like a bunch of nuts in the eyes of sensible waste experts who support this or that energy from waste proposal. The same applies – how can councillors and candidates be supported day-to-day, supported in developing their own skills, and given some guidelines to follow?

    One final thought – I think this recent episode also shows that few in scientific communities are particularly familiar with more risque NVDA tactics. So thinking along the lines of your BIS occupation, what sort of tactics are most likely to get attention and win plaudits?

  19. Richard LaneNo Gravatar
    June 11th, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    three observations Adam:

    1. It’s virtually impossible to forsee all the “likely end uses” of a single piece of research. In GM food research a lot of the discoveries will feed into other areas of genetics. Where do you draw the line, separate out a single strand of research and stop funding it?

    2. The GPEW need to become much more *nuanced* in their treatment of scientific issues. e.g. anti-all GM or just the corporate aspects; anti-thermal reactor fission, or anti-all nuclear including fusion?

    3. The GP pick and choose when to take scientific advice. Good example being fluoridation of the water – all the scientific research says Yes it’s beneficial. Greens say no as “state medication” doesn’t sound very liberal!

  20. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 12th, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Tom, no probs. Yeah, I’m sure ths would be useful – shall ponder, though I don’t particularly claim to be an expert in this.

    Richard on 1) when I was at university, one department was said to be doing research, funded by the pentagon, into how best most quickly to immobilise the civilian economy of Sudan if the US decided to launch a bombing campaign there. We were told that this wasn’t relevant to university ethics committees, because they couldn’t look at the likely uses of research, only the methadology. Yes, it’s hard to know where to draw the line, but it is reasonable to say that the above example is ridiculous, and that account should in some way be taken of application of research. And if we are saying that university ethics committees should have the say over what is and isn’t OK, then surely it should be for them – ideally drawn as democratically as possible from the university community/its stakeholders whilst taking into account the need for expertise – to decide where lines are drawn? Obviously I may well often not get my way, but I don’t mind losing out in a genuinely democratic process…

  21. Ben YoungNo Gravatar
    June 12th, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    @Richard Lane

    Re 3. You’re not *criticizing* the GP for picking and choosing which scientific advice it follows, are you? This sounds like precisely the role that a political party should have. One cannot read public policy off a statement of the facts. This is not just because ‘ought-statements’ cannot be deduced from ‘is-statements'; it is also because the facts are never clear: they are only more or less accepted at a given moment. It’s a matter of politics what’s accepted as true (tho’ it is not a matter of politics what IS true), and political parties are supposed to engage in politics. Therefore they should pick and choose: only, they should pick and choose *well*.

  22. lifeintherapids.comNo Gravatar
    October 4th, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

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