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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 17 2013: Helllo, The states that are concerned in innovation and development in a wide range of fields of science are the states that are better able to create wealth for the people.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi Jesus,

      I agree with your sentiments here. I want to add that though the government acts as the strongest source of support (financial and otherwise) for scientific advancement, this strength also affords the government great influence over the directions in which research is taken (and, in some cases, influence over the conclusions drawn from research, as noted by Ariel in the original post).

      My point here is that the good in science comes from freedom of thought. Perhaps it would be best if governments just supported free-thinking scientists. Of course, this would only happen in ideal world... for now, we can attempt to push things in this direction by committing more money to non-lobbied science.
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        Feb 19 2013: Osaze,

        I agree with everything you said here. Thank you for putting it so clearly! I believe that the best of scientific research is done with freedom of imagination. The beauty of government funded research is the scientific freedom. Industry research is tainted with thoughts of revenue, profit and consumerism. Like it has been mentioned on this thread before, a company will not fund a project unless it will result in profits for them. Often times a promising project has been rejected because of financial reasons. I believe that government funded research remains untainted and has the best intentions and yields the most applicable results.
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        Feb 20 2013: Really we need to push forward non-lobbied science but its necessary that goverments invest in free education, universities etc for all range of people to create open mind scientits that they could choose be sponsorided or not... utopia? perhaps but as you well say "push" is the key word.

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