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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: Hey Ariel!

    I think this question has two really important parts. The first part asks the question of whether or not government involvement (and funding) with scientific research is good for science. I think you made some really valid points, and gave good examples of a time when subjective politics interfered with the objective scientific good. On the other hand, when the government is not the one funding the research, it is up to independent companies to fund and carry out these projects. Most often, what will happen is that companies with vested interests in the results will be the ones doing the studies, and that can be just as, if not more, problematic for the validity of the results published. In reality, it is always difficult to separate the human emotion from the research being conducted, whether it is funded by the state or by independent companies.

    The second question that this discussion raised is: is it in the government's best interest to fund research projects? I would have to say yes, that investing in technology, human invention, and all the things that keep our economy moving is something that the government should definitely do. It's hard to argue the contrary when we are currently connecting with one another on the internet, the perfect example of a government-funded scientific endeavor that has paid off more than what we put into it, one that has created countless jobs, and revolutionized the world and world economy as we know it.
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      Feb 17 2013: Hindi, thank you very much for your well thought out response. I tend to agree with the comments you made. If scientific research was left up to the independent companies, most often, the results published will have issues of validity. However, what if we adopted a regulatory approach to scientific research- similar to the social capitalism we have instituted in our country's economic policy. Strict government regulations and sanctions on institutions of businesses that are part of a "free-trade, laissez-faire style" economy. I realize complete separation between government and research is impossible to attain, but do you think if independents were monitored and regulated it be better than a direct involvement of our government in scientific research? That way, all the problems of validity won't be as pressing.

      What are your thoughts?
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        Feb 18 2013: Hi Ariel and Hindi,
        Ariel you bring up a very interesting and controversial discussion, considering the fact that today the government plays a fundamental role in the scientific world and that most science researchers today would not be able to conduct their laboratories without the help of the government. While it may seem that all of the science research that goes on this country could be funded by private investors, I beg to disagree. I agree with Hindi, that if science research was left up to the private sector alone, the vested interests of the companies funding the research could interfere with the validity of the results - tarnishing the scientific world. Now Ariel, your suggestion to have government regulation of the funding instead of directly funding, is a good suggestion but does not completely solve the problem. By only allowing private companies to fund science research, I believe that many areas of science research would be under-represented. In addition, having the government sponsor science research, provides equal opportunity for all to be involved in science research, and encourages the entire country to be interested in science and making discoveries. In the past fifty years, there has been an exponential amount of scientific discoveries being made in this country, and I think that in a large part has to do with the founding of the NIH and the large role that the government plays in the science research world. I do not believe that private investment of science research, could sustain all of the research facilities in this country, let alone help the US remain up to date in terms of developing technologies compared to the rest of the world.
      • Feb 18 2013: Let me offer one single point about private funding of, say, academic research effort. I recognize the fallacies of business funding of research project just to promote their products,and selectively uses only the positive result beneficial to them. This should be left for the authority of the business administration bureau to check on the possible false advertising of products by the businesses rather than a blanket prohibition of such funding. In biomedical research which I am familiar with, the stop of such funding is prohibitively costly, and not economically justified. And the amount involved is just too large that it can be handled solely by the government. Remember, the many people are complaining about large governmental debt and too big government. So, the best solution to whether we should fund all the research work by the government or by sharing the funding by both, is not a clear cut choice. Let me quote an old saying: " Don't throwout the baby with the bath water" or the Chinese saying: "Don't starve yourself because of your after-eating hiccups". :)
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        Feb 20 2013: Hello fellow TED-ers,

        I think something Ariel and Hindi both touched on was that private companies being the sole founders of research and development presents problems. However, other than simply affecting validity, there are much more corruption that we need to watch out for! Theres always some new scandalous story about Pharma skewing data or publishing falsified reports in the media.

        Ariel mentioned that he hopes that with tighter regulations (as with american economic regulations) researching corporations could "reform their evil ways".However, what remains unsaid, is that there are already such regulations in place! The pharmaceutical industry has had tighter regulation changes than most others in recent years! In spite of these (as we have also seen with big businesses in spite of tight economic regulations following 2008), we continue to see fraud and corruption from Pharma.

        In light of these observations, my personal opinion is that science should continue to be funded in part by private entities, because we know that many advances in science and technology come from individual entities with high motivation (and large budgets) AND be funded by government who can sponsor grants and ensure that important projects get the funding they need.

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