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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 19 2013: Joseph – great question. I must agree with Bart that there is no clear-cut answer. Science is inherently different from the State in terms of its goals. The goal of science is to understand things, and the goal of the State is the welfare of its people. Science seeks to discover laws of nature, but does not enforce them in any way. State, on the other hand, has a major say in which laws it chooses to enforce. While science strives to be objective, the State has certain subjective aspects that require compromise. As the two are quite distinct, it would be disaster for the State to attempt to dictate science. On the other hand, no one really wants science and State o have nothing to with each other. Many experts argue that the State should regulate the conduct and regulation of science. This is directly related to the FDA approving drugs for limited of widespread use, the granting of offshore drilling permits, and establishing automobile fuel efficiency or emission standards. Because of wide public supports and the myriad benefits promised by science, we want the State to fund and suppoert science. The State provides certain processes and framework that spurs discovery and creativity, not hiders it. Needless to say, we want science and State to interact in a mutually beneficial way.

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