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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: 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.

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