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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: What is proposed and what gets funded are two different things as you can see from this 2009 article. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9132171/Obama_vows_to_increase_U.S._research_spending_to_3_of_GDP
    It is however in the public's interest to have government fund research.
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      Feb 13 2013: Theodore,

      Thank you for posting the link! Even though it's in the public's best interest to have government fund research, do you think that since the government promotes certain types of research, the scientific innovation that is not funded or promoted is in turn at a huge disadvantage to be recognized and further advanced?

      If our government was not involved, do you think that would provide an opportunity for all types of scientific research to be equally represented to the public? And since our government is encouraging certain programs, like clean energy and education for example, perhaps other research is being discounted or even ignored? Thoughts?
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        Feb 13 2013: There are two types of research, applied sciences and pure science. The two other major funding sources are private and corporate. Space exploration may not have gotten of the ground without public funding for research, although now we are seeing interest in space by private concerns. Research like the Hedron Collider is probably only possible because on the cooperation of the European nations funding it. The "Blue Brain Project" is another example of this kind of cooperation.
        • Feb 15 2013: that's very true, we're always going to need government to get things off the ground (both literally and figuratively). as with satellite communications no company was going to risk billions to develop rockets and satellites that might amount to nothing, but once governments had funded it and it got all worked out, then companies could start using those discoveries and that know-how to further their business.

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