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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 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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