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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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