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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 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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