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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: Ariel, that's a really interesting question to think about.

    My first thoughts are that our research should not be politically charged because that risks introducing a bias, which can move us farther from the truth, which (I believe) is the goal of scienctific research.

    However, perhaps an advantage to government funding and politically motivated research is that it forces the scientific community to stay focused on the salient issues. The government (if it's doing its job well, I think) is aware of what needs to happen clinically and where people want to see progress, and that's what they will stress in their relationship to the scientific community. Without that leash, perhaps a lot of time, money, and effort can be spent on advancing irrelevant fields that are theoretically interesting, but do not seek to ultimately provide a service to people.
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      Feb 16 2013: Hi Yaron,
      I think you bring up a very interesting point about the government directing the focus of research being done towards present day problems. In that way, I do think the government plays an important role in scientific discovery. I feel scientific research is driven by two main factors that may or may not always intertwine; curiosity and a desire to improve peoples’ lives in some way. Both are important reasons and have lead to some fascinating discoveries. But sometimes it is necessary to focus more on research that could help people, especially when it is the tax payers’ money being spent. While the government helps fund research relating to the environment, or medicine, or education, I think it is beneficial to keep science and state somewhat joined.
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        Feb 17 2013: I hear that side of the argument. But your comment made me thing- perhaps if their was more free competition, individual companies would try to develop the best product for monetary benefits. You know- to be funded to do research, and to do research for the $$ at the end of the day are very distinct motivators.

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