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Joseph Ariel Stern

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Would a separation of Science and State help or hinder Innovation and scientific discovery?

For my Bioelectricity class this week, we began reading the Spark of Life, by Frances Ashcroft, and a very interesting historical fact resonated with me: There was an acrimonious debate during the American War of Independence between those who supported Benjamin Franklin´s idea of a pointed tip as a lightning conductor and Benjamin Wilson´s (a British scientist) preference of rounded, low-blunted knobs. What had begun as a scientific spat quickly escalated into a major feud between the British knob and the American spike factions. The Royal Society carried out a series of experiments and concluded that Franklin was in fact correct; however, King George III ordered the Society to reverse its conclusions and to remove pointed spikes from Ordnance buildings. In response, John Pringle, the President of the Society, memorably said, "duty as well as inclination would always induce him to execute his Majesty´s wishes to the utmost of his power, but `Sire [...] I cannot reverse the laws and operations of nature.´"

As seen from this short anecdote, the political environment of the time can greatly affect the research and work of many scientists. We also learned that Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, as well as Walther Nernst, were vocal critiques of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. They protested the German treatment of Jewish scientists and helped their colleagues find positions elsewhere.

Today, President Obama has stated, "Whether it´s improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America´s role as the world´s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovations." Although a significant amount of scientific research is funded by political institutions, how do you, members of the TED community, feel about a separation of politics and science? Would a separation help or hinder scientific innovation?

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    Feb 14 2013: Hi Ariel!

    Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking question. I think that involving politics in different aspects of our lives is generally a bad idea. However, with scientific research, I think it is highly important that the government funds many different projects. Obviously this involves choosing which types of projects are selected which can get a bit messy as it might cater to certain politicians personal opinions. This risk of bias should not alter the government's decision to fund projects as a whole.

    I think there should be a separation of science and state to an extent. Full separation is impossible and not beneficial. But separation in the sense where we do not allow our state to govern science is one that is much preferable.
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      Feb 15 2013: I agree Hadar!

      Depending on the level of separation of Science and State, the disjunction can be either harmful or helpful. As seen in the example you quoted, Ariel, King George III attempted to disprove science in order to show prominence over America. When Science and State are connected to this extent, there are harmful consequences.

      However, as Hadar says, funding is nearly the most important item for scientific research. Corporations large and small are always hesitant to fund research that does not prove to become a "money maker." This is where government funding comes into play.

      There is obviously a fine line that must be drawn between science and state and perhaps the most important question is simply "where?"
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        Feb 19 2013: Jonathan Yellow,

        I agree with you in that the most important question is where to draw the line between science and state. Our country's economy runs on capitalism; therefore, scientific research that can possibly yield profitable results, usually have no problem being funded by private corporations under the profit motive. Some scientific non-profit endeavors, however, often find hard times being funded by private organizations. In these cases I find it imperative for government funding to step in and provide a driving force for world-changing research on the basis of the greater good of mankind.
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      Feb 17 2013: I also think that it is beneficial to have the government fund scientific research to a certain extent. Although this leads to politically or economically driven research and projects, I don't think it is necessarily bad as long as the government tries to distribute the funds evenly to also support non-politically driven projects. I think politically or economically driven research has a value-- using science to make profit or to shape politics in a way it benefits the people seems like a good thing.
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    Feb 17 2013: Hey Ariel!

    I think this question has two really important parts. The first part asks the question of whether or not government involvement (and funding) with scientific research is good for science. I think you made some really valid points, and gave good examples of a time when subjective politics interfered with the objective scientific good. On the other hand, when the government is not the one funding the research, it is up to independent companies to fund and carry out these projects. Most often, what will happen is that companies with vested interests in the results will be the ones doing the studies, and that can be just as, if not more, problematic for the validity of the results published. In reality, it is always difficult to separate the human emotion from the research being conducted, whether it is funded by the state or by independent companies.

    The second question that this discussion raised is: is it in the government's best interest to fund research projects? I would have to say yes, that investing in technology, human invention, and all the things that keep our economy moving is something that the government should definitely do. It's hard to argue the contrary when we are currently connecting with one another on the internet, the perfect example of a government-funded scientific endeavor that has paid off more than what we put into it, one that has created countless jobs, and revolutionized the world and world economy as we know it.
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      Feb 17 2013: Hindi, thank you very much for your well thought out response. I tend to agree with the comments you made. If scientific research was left up to the independent companies, most often, the results published will have issues of validity. However, what if we adopted a regulatory approach to scientific research- similar to the social capitalism we have instituted in our country's economic policy. Strict government regulations and sanctions on institutions of businesses that are part of a "free-trade, laissez-faire style" economy. I realize complete separation between government and research is impossible to attain, but do you think if independents were monitored and regulated it be better than a direct involvement of our government in scientific research? That way, all the problems of validity won't be as pressing.

      What are your thoughts?
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        Feb 18 2013: Hi Ariel and Hindi,
        Ariel you bring up a very interesting and controversial discussion, considering the fact that today the government plays a fundamental role in the scientific world and that most science researchers today would not be able to conduct their laboratories without the help of the government. While it may seem that all of the science research that goes on this country could be funded by private investors, I beg to disagree. I agree with Hindi, that if science research was left up to the private sector alone, the vested interests of the companies funding the research could interfere with the validity of the results - tarnishing the scientific world. Now Ariel, your suggestion to have government regulation of the funding instead of directly funding, is a good suggestion but does not completely solve the problem. By only allowing private companies to fund science research, I believe that many areas of science research would be under-represented. In addition, having the government sponsor science research, provides equal opportunity for all to be involved in science research, and encourages the entire country to be interested in science and making discoveries. In the past fifty years, there has been an exponential amount of scientific discoveries being made in this country, and I think that in a large part has to do with the founding of the NIH and the large role that the government plays in the science research world. I do not believe that private investment of science research, could sustain all of the research facilities in this country, let alone help the US remain up to date in terms of developing technologies compared to the rest of the world.
      • Feb 18 2013: Let me offer one single point about private funding of, say, academic research effort. I recognize the fallacies of business funding of research project just to promote their products,and selectively uses only the positive result beneficial to them. This should be left for the authority of the business administration bureau to check on the possible false advertising of products by the businesses rather than a blanket prohibition of such funding. In biomedical research which I am familiar with, the stop of such funding is prohibitively costly, and not economically justified. And the amount involved is just too large that it can be handled solely by the government. Remember, the many people are complaining about large governmental debt and too big government. So, the best solution to whether we should fund all the research work by the government or by sharing the funding by both, is not a clear cut choice. Let me quote an old saying: " Don't throwout the baby with the bath water" or the Chinese saying: "Don't starve yourself because of your after-eating hiccups". :)
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        Feb 20 2013: Hello fellow TED-ers,

        I think something Ariel and Hindi both touched on was that private companies being the sole founders of research and development presents problems. However, other than simply affecting validity, there are much more corruption that we need to watch out for! Theres always some new scandalous story about Pharma skewing data or publishing falsified reports in the media.

        Ariel mentioned that he hopes that with tighter regulations (as with american economic regulations) researching corporations could "reform their evil ways".However, what remains unsaid, is that there are already such regulations in place! The pharmaceutical industry has had tighter regulation changes than most others in recent years! In spite of these (as we have also seen with big businesses in spite of tight economic regulations following 2008), we continue to see fraud and corruption from Pharma.

        In light of these observations, my personal opinion is that science should continue to be funded in part by private entities, because we know that many advances in science and technology come from individual entities with high motivation (and large budgets) AND be funded by government who can sponsor grants and ensure that important projects get the funding they need.
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    Feb 14 2013: Ariel, that's a really interesting question to think about.

    My first thoughts are that our research should not be politically charged because that risks introducing a bias, which can move us farther from the truth, which (I believe) is the goal of scienctific research.

    However, perhaps an advantage to government funding and politically motivated research is that it forces the scientific community to stay focused on the salient issues. The government (if it's doing its job well, I think) is aware of what needs to happen clinically and where people want to see progress, and that's what they will stress in their relationship to the scientific community. Without that leash, perhaps a lot of time, money, and effort can be spent on advancing irrelevant fields that are theoretically interesting, but do not seek to ultimately provide a service to people.
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      Feb 16 2013: Hi Yaron,
      I think you bring up a very interesting point about the government directing the focus of research being done towards present day problems. In that way, I do think the government plays an important role in scientific discovery. I feel scientific research is driven by two main factors that may or may not always intertwine; curiosity and a desire to improve peoples’ lives in some way. Both are important reasons and have lead to some fascinating discoveries. But sometimes it is necessary to focus more on research that could help people, especially when it is the tax payers’ money being spent. While the government helps fund research relating to the environment, or medicine, or education, I think it is beneficial to keep science and state somewhat joined.
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        Feb 17 2013: I hear that side of the argument. But your comment made me thing- perhaps if their was more free competition, individual companies would try to develop the best product for monetary benefits. You know- to be funded to do research, and to do research for the $$ at the end of the day are very distinct motivators.
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    Feb 13 2013: What is proposed and what gets funded are two different things as you can see from this 2009 article. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9132171/Obama_vows_to_increase_U.S._research_spending_to_3_of_GDP
    It is however in the public's interest to have government fund research.
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      Feb 13 2013: Theodore,

      Thank you for posting the link! Even though it's in the public's best interest to have government fund research, do you think that since the government promotes certain types of research, the scientific innovation that is not funded or promoted is in turn at a huge disadvantage to be recognized and further advanced?

      If our government was not involved, do you think that would provide an opportunity for all types of scientific research to be equally represented to the public? And since our government is encouraging certain programs, like clean energy and education for example, perhaps other research is being discounted or even ignored? Thoughts?
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        Feb 13 2013: There are two types of research, applied sciences and pure science. The two other major funding sources are private and corporate. Space exploration may not have gotten of the ground without public funding for research, although now we are seeing interest in space by private concerns. Research like the Hedron Collider is probably only possible because on the cooperation of the European nations funding it. The "Blue Brain Project" is another example of this kind of cooperation.
        • Feb 15 2013: that's very true, we're always going to need government to get things off the ground (both literally and figuratively). as with satellite communications no company was going to risk billions to develop rockets and satellites that might amount to nothing, but once governments had funded it and it got all worked out, then companies could start using those discoveries and that know-how to further their business.
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    Feb 19 2013: i heard about a survey, some time ago, made by some international organization. they wanted to give governments munition to advocate spending on r&d, based on its positive effect on gdp. but the study brought unexpected results. the gdp growth is in fact in close correlation to r&d spending, as long as you count only private spending. public spending showed no correlation at all. so since the result was not useful, they kinda buried the survey. alas, i can't find any details now, and i don't remember where i have heard about it.

    but the pattern is neither new nor surprising. you can not mimic successful activities by copying aggregate numbers. you can not make a successful company just by spending the same amount of money on QoS as another successful company. the amount of money spent on things is an emergent property of expertise and good strategy. just by copying some high level numbers you don't acquire insight. the government can pump money in research, but will never be able to select the projects that are likely to result in anything. the government can play with aggregate numbers, but will never have insight to produce actual results.
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    Feb 15 2013: We have a rough equivalent to King George III in the group of science deniers who now hold high positions in government. Example: Senator Jim Inhofe - he is the ranking member of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and was its chairman from 2003 to 2007, and is a vocal critic of climate science, labeling the general consensus about global warming a hoax. It doesn't stop there, as many in congress would also like to see creationism given equal time with evolution. I don't see the issue to be so much hindering innovation as hindering the development of sane evidence based policy.
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      Feb 17 2013: In a sense I agree. There is always going to be a motive and political bias if governments are responsible for funding research, less so if private companies would fund them (even though each individual has their own bias obviously). But I can see both sides of the issue.
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        Feb 17 2013: I don't think the kind of bias I am refering to is simpy a political bias - these people have an ax to grind because of their reigious beliefs and because they often worship another god - unrestrained capitalism. Politics is a tool they use to push their will on to the rest of us, while at the same time calling for a smaller government of which they are a part.

        An open and free society will guarrantee a lot of research will get done independent of government intervention and funding. Plus the rest of the world is contributing more to research and innovation at an accelerating rate. I don't have the figures but I wonder how much funding at the university level would be affected if federal grants dried up? Some of this funding, while dubious, goes to support graduate level education which has payoff in other ways to our society.

        It really goes back to the mindset of those in government - if they have a more enlightened mindset which considers the impact of what we do to our own citizens and the rest of the world and to future generations funding priorities will be different than if we are focused on the here and now, god and country, abortion & guns, and American exceptionalism.

        The genie is out of the bottle in any case, as stem cell research shows. American politicians can stonewall and argue, display their ignorance to the world at large, but science is moving on without them, and will move on without the United States as well.
  • Feb 15 2013: that'd be a quintuple loss for all people.

    one because companies don't research into anything they can't likely turn a profit from. eg say it's possible to cure some disease with olive oil, it would never get discovered without government funding.

    two because these same companies actively work against discoveries that would hurt their business. plenty of great ideas have been bought out and shelves by companies because it would cost them millions if the product made it to market. with the same olive oil discovery it'd cost pharmaceutical companies and also big engineering like GE who make billions selling machines to treat diseases so it's in their best interest to spend millions to make sure we don't get such advances.

    three because money slants research. even if the company paying for the research specifically says that they want honest results, the group researching is always going to be subconsciously aware that their salaries depend on the company's success and so they're going to be more likely to push positive results or at least a positive side of negative results. however with government funding there is nothing at all to be gained either way so the truth is free from even a shadow of slanting.

    four because the results of any research done by private companies becomes proprietary so every citizen can't benefit. one of the best things about nasa is anything they discover can be freely used, so american companies are getting free boosts against their competition every year.

    and five because results are never clear so you can't find what you need unless you search everywhere. a good example is the way helium was discovered; by studying the sun. of course gas supply companies wouldn't fund astronomy because that's not their business, and they couldn't possibly know there'd turn out to be a benefit for them by doing that.

    we need everything to be researched without motive, and the only way that can be done is through government funding.
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      Feb 19 2013: I agree that government-funded research is more likely to be free of bias towards positive results. However, governments are under pressure by the people they are governing. Many taxpayers think of themselves like shareholders, and they want something in return.

      This is a very timely conversation, considering today's big headline that President Obama is supporting the multi-billion dollar funding of a ten-year project to map out the brain. Much like a private business, the government is hoping for some return: in this case, an improvement to our economy, especially in the form of job creation. All the newspaper articles are pointing to the economic success of the Human Genome Project, so clearly there is a strong motive behind government funding of the sciences in this case.

      It's easy to argue that private funding can achieve the same effects as the government, and that with a deficit the size of the US's, we should let private funding take care of it. But in this case, the potential for profit is clear, and the private funding is simply not there.

      Besides, I like government funding more than private funding because, like Ben touched on, intellectual property law can and will be abused by private companies. The most productive and moral way to advance science is to keep it as free as air and water.
      • Feb 19 2013: that's a very good point that governments also have hopeful outcomes, but at least those outcomes don't have to be profitable, and are so open-ended that many people and companies are likely to win. many benefit from government funded research as opposed to few from private.

        in the case of the brain map (good example btw) it should also help education, medicine, psychology, a bunch of things i can't think of and a hundred more than nobody could possibly imagine until after the discoveries have been made.
  • Feb 13 2013: Now that is an interesting proposition. I think that would be a good thing. There are so many studies, especially social ones, that are politically fueled and the bias shows up in their results. The only problem is how to enforce that. Scientists are people too, with political views just like the rest of us. It would be very hard to prevent the bias in the scientist's own brain from showing through in their work.
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      Feb 13 2013: Scot ,

      I agree that each person has a political bias that can't be avoided in their studies and work. The direction I was going with in my question was- should political institutions be separated from scientific research. Should Obama's cuts on stem cell research inherently affect the amount of resources and interest people have in using embryonic stem cell for medical cures? Although I think education and clean energy are both extremely important, should our government's focus on them what determines where our scientists focus their attention most?
      • Feb 14 2013: Oh, I see. So you're suggesting taking away government funding for science? That might not be a bad thing. It would certainly keep science streamlined and focused on what actually works if we leave it up to market principles.
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    Feb 19 2013: Joseph – great question. I must agree with Bart that there is no clear-cut answer. Science is inherently different from the State in terms of its goals. The goal of science is to understand things, and the goal of the State is the welfare of its people. Science seeks to discover laws of nature, but does not enforce them in any way. State, on the other hand, has a major say in which laws it chooses to enforce. While science strives to be objective, the State has certain subjective aspects that require compromise. As the two are quite distinct, it would be disaster for the State to attempt to dictate science. On the other hand, no one really wants science and State o have nothing to with each other. Many experts argue that the State should regulate the conduct and regulation of science. This is directly related to the FDA approving drugs for limited of widespread use, the granting of offshore drilling permits, and establishing automobile fuel efficiency or emission standards. Because of wide public supports and the myriad benefits promised by science, we want the State to fund and suppoert science. The State provides certain processes and framework that spurs discovery and creativity, not hiders it. Needless to say, we want science and State to interact in a mutually beneficial way.
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    Feb 17 2013: Helllo, The states that are concerned in innovation and development in a wide range of fields of science are the states that are better able to create wealth for the people.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi Jesus,

      I agree with your sentiments here. I want to add that though the government acts as the strongest source of support (financial and otherwise) for scientific advancement, this strength also affords the government great influence over the directions in which research is taken (and, in some cases, influence over the conclusions drawn from research, as noted by Ariel in the original post).

      My point here is that the good in science comes from freedom of thought. Perhaps it would be best if governments just supported free-thinking scientists. Of course, this would only happen in ideal world... for now, we can attempt to push things in this direction by committing more money to non-lobbied science.
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        Feb 19 2013: Osaze,

        I agree with everything you said here. Thank you for putting it so clearly! I believe that the best of scientific research is done with freedom of imagination. The beauty of government funded research is the scientific freedom. Industry research is tainted with thoughts of revenue, profit and consumerism. Like it has been mentioned on this thread before, a company will not fund a project unless it will result in profits for them. Often times a promising project has been rejected because of financial reasons. I believe that government funded research remains untainted and has the best intentions and yields the most applicable results.
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        Feb 20 2013: Really we need to push forward non-lobbied science but its necessary that goverments invest in free education, universities etc for all range of people to create open mind scientits that they could choose be sponsorided or not... utopia? perhaps but as you well say "push" is the key word.
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      Feb 17 2013: You're right Myf. My original intention of this proposed question was specifically directed towards a separation between government and scientific research. The responses I've been receiving has opened my eyes to other ideas.
  • Feb 15 2013: The question of government funding of research is indeed different from the separation of religion and government (function), but I still believe that there should be constraint of certain justifications. The present system is reasonably good by separating the funding according to whether the research is related to national defense, or involving the public health and community welfare. The former group should be and are already organized and funded by the government institutions like the department of defense and the military units and special institutions like the Atomic Commission and NASA, these should of course be separated without regard to the magnitude of the fund amount. For the other research such as in public health and education, for instance, there is no reason that the government should be the sole funding source and dictate what should be the topic or the application of any findings. We do have institutions like the Institute of Health (NIH) and The Academy of Science which should carry out the funding and guidance of the research, BUT DOES NOT DICTATE HOW THE FINDINGS SHOULD BE USED. At least in my opinion, the government should only be allowed to fund researches on how to make COST-EFFECTIVE USE OF CERTAIN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY, AND SHOULD NOT FUND THE MANUFACTURERS OF SUCH FACILITIES/INSTRUMENTS BEFORE THE EFFECTIVENESS HAS BEEN JUSTIFIED. Let's look at an example. When the NIH examines a research project on certain new medical procedure or treatment, they would judge the research applicants' qualification and the probability of success, before making the grant decisions. Would it be a bad policy that the NIH would fund a clinic to adopt a new medical procedure or drug BEFORE IT HAS BEEN PROVEN BEING EFFECTIVE AND WITHOUT SERIOUS ADVERSE EFFECT? (In this case; after a rigorous risk-benefit analysis).
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      Feb 17 2013: Wow Bart, thank you very much for that well thought out comment. I guess I didn't realize the extent to which the government was involved in research. Like you said though, the government is focused on funding research that is "related to national defense, or involving the public and community welfare." I completely agree with you that we should be funding military advancements and the sort- it's unfortunate that they significantly cut their funding to NASA. That being said- you see know how privateers are currently funding space research and space travel... Is that such a bad thing?
      And I agree with you: the government could be like any investor in a promising project, but should not influence the direction of the research and project. Your examples are very practical and helpful.

      Thank you Bart!
      • Feb 17 2013: Thank you for you response. May I make a brief response to the question of the private development of space travel. That , of course, is not a bad thing. But, returning to my point in my comment, the government definitely shouldn't involved in such endeavor whether they are for-profit or non-profit business because this kind of project can only serve a few millionaires to travel to the moon, say. That is also a NO for a government to do, because it only serves a few privileged. I hope that you agree with my point. In other word the Equality Principle for a government should be for race, gender, age religion AND rich-or-poor as well.
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    Feb 14 2013: Much of science is taxpayer (state) funded. If that funding source dried-up the result would be less science.
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      Feb 14 2013: Edward,

      Since the government cut funding to NASA, you have private companies and entrepreneurs pursuing aerospace exploration. Don't you think private companies and individuals would involve themselves more without government involvement?
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        Feb 14 2013: Only the government is given to funding projects from which no profit can be expected. Private companies would continue to pursue profitable endeavors at the current rate. I don't think many companies shy away from scientific investigation because they want nothing to do with government bureaucracy. They wouldn't jump-in even if Uncle Sam jumped-out.
      • Feb 15 2013: they aren't pursuing space exploration, they're pursuing space tourism. reason exactly as edward has said.
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    Feb 14 2013: It would do both. Right now, it furthers advances with a strong bias to areas that fit its economic agenda. It would have a much broader base if Wall Street didn't own government.