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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

The Battle of Ideas – commencement of polite and well-spoken hostilities

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This weekend sees the Royal College of Art in Kensington play host to the sixth annual Battle of Ideas Festival.

It is fitting that it should be held next door to the Royal Albert Hall, which was built from the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851(1), a festival showcasing some great ideas.

An old print of Queen Victoria standing beneath a canopy in the Crystal Palace at the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851

This year’s festival is focusing on the division between public and private, the decline of trust, ethics in medicine, and the importance of evidence in science.

Ethically I cannot withhold the following (in the interests of transparency and full disclosure): I only attended one hour of Saturday’s timetable. I apologise and can only say I had a good excuse. I promise to be front and centre for Sunday as the event moves into full-on science and policy mode. Topics to be covered on this Sabbath day will revolve around the general theme: ‘The Battle Over Scientific Evidence’.

The one debate I could attend on Saturday very much whet my appetite for Sunday’s fun. It set my mind wandering over some material I have recently been scrutinising from the British Medical Journal (BMJ). A systematic review and meta analysis(2), with accompanying editorial by the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG)(3), I believe rather puncture whatever claims Pfizer makes about the effectiveness of their antidepressant drug, generically(4) known as reboxetine.

My hour of battling ideas were provided by a panel made up of David Aaronovitch, columnist with The Times; Phil Booth, national coordinator of the NO2ID campaign; Dr Norman Lewis, chief innovation officer of Open Knowledge; Dan Schwarzmann, UK leader of business recovery services for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Our chair was Patrick Hayes. Our topic: Behind closed doors: privacy versus transparency?

Phil Booth launched us off with his opening statement and he covered a major point which was echoed by most of the rest of the panel and that is that privacy and transparency are not mutually exclusive. While I agree the situation is more nuanced than the title of the session would suggest I also think Aaronovitch’s counter point that you cannot have privacy for some and transparency for others stands. Tiger Woods does not owe all of us an explanation for sleeping with quite so many women while married any more than a philandering friend owes a stranger from Sidcup an explanation for his adulterous tendencies.

The discussion progressed: Dan Schwarzmann recounted his leading role in the administration of Lehman Brothers’ debts after the bank collapsed in September 2008. He made a convincing point that there must be space for transparency and privacy in business practices. To illustrate the point he recalled the need for transparency in PWC’s dealings with the Lehman Brothers’ staff when announcing their plans to try to save the company assets. There was also the need for secrecy in not telling the staff who they were consulting to buy Lehman Brothers – a stipulation of the buyer. A member of the audience, when the discussion was opened to the floor, remarked sagely that this is a case of honesty versus being able to make decisions in private, rather than transparency versus privacy. Returning to the general point that privacy can be important precursor for trust as much as transparency, Schwarzmann put forward the idea that privacy is vital for business innovation with his closing remarks. This is true in some cases but in the example of Pfizer privacy could have led to deeply underhand and suspect business practices, should the review in the BMJ be believed. It could have been the shield behind which a basic betrayal of trust developed.

This is a nuanced situation and one that crosses many walks of life – pharmaceuticals considerably so. I left the debate with many answers but lots of new questions. The next day’s programme will hopefully produce even more answers and a great plethora of questions for me to ponder over the coming days. Watch this space for updates and follow me on Twitter – see Mini mural link to the right of the screen – for some regular snippets from the conference floor.

The Battle continues.

1 – The Great Exhibition, the rather good idea of Prince Albert, was such an outrageous success that the profits that it generated paid for such institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the National History Museum as well as the Royal Albert Hall. You can see Albert sat under the canopy of his monument opposite his Hall holding a copy of the Great Exhibitions’ catalogue in tribute to him and his idea

2 – A systematic review with meta-analysis cannot easily be described in a pithy analogy. A meta-analysis involves taking the results from different but comparable research studies and combining them. Statistically analysing these results enables a conclusion to be drawn from all the different studies’ data. A systematic review is similar and sometimes incorporates a meta-analysis (as in this case). Essentially, where a meta-analysis is the statistical analyses a systematic review is the strategies and procedure that ensure the removal of as much bias as possible when lots of studies are pulled together for combined anaylsis

3 – A non-governmental and non-profit organisation that scrutinises medical acquisitions for effectiveness and value for money for the German government – the UK equivalent is called NICE (National Institute of health and Clinical Excellence)

4 – Its non-trade name, like calling a Herbert-made vacuum cleaner a vacuum cleaner rather than a ‘Herbert SuperSux 9000’ (possibly not a real brand and model)

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Written by nascenthack

October 30, 2010 at 8:56 pm

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