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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: 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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