TED Conversations

Samantha Massengill

Engineer, Southwest Research Institute


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How immune should science be from the political environment of its time?

Many scientists have been affected by the political environment of their time. Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, protested the German treatment of Jewish scientists and professors as he watched his friends become dismissed from their positions. Similarly, Walther Nernst openly voiced criticisms of the Nazis and was forced to end his career as a scientist. More recently, President Obama overturned the Bush administrations' limit on federal tax dollars towards stem cell research. President Obama also supports scientific efforts towards a clean energy economy. If political leaders do not encourage scientific research, proper funding will not be allocated. However, much research has been made possible by involvement due to politics. Do you think there should be a separation between science and politics?


Closing Statement from Samantha Massengill

Thank you all for joining me in this conversation. It really helped me to solidify my own beliefs towards political involvement in my scientific endeavors. Hopefully others have gained from this experience as well!

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  • Feb 1 2012: It is true that governments (and large private organizations) are able to support scientific research in away that makes great progress. But where do we turn for truth? How do we discern that the research and the results reflect truth and don't cater to biased motivations or special interest agendas?
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      Feb 1 2012: Wonderful projects are funded by government - DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) used taxpayer money to develop the predecessor to the internet. There have been regulations and limitations established by the NIH when applying for grants that help to exclude special interests. Unfortunately, the public access policy that the NIH currently employs (requiring work to be free and available to the general public) is under fire by large corporations under the Research Works Acts. This piece of legislature would slow the progress made by the vast majority of researchers, perhaps even biasing their results. So, while some government involvement is important, too much is also detrimental.
      • Feb 2 2012: Hi Dionne, wonderful projects funded by the government, are funded by wonderful taxpayers! DARPA , should be cut from the expensive way of living. ( the government ) Too much! Come on, people! :)
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      Feb 7 2012: Hi Gina,
      You raise a serious issue which has been brought up in several of these mini threads. How do we ensure that the research that is being done and published is quote on quote good science. Unfortunately, there is no great answer to this question as the academic pressures involved in research whether the research is funded by the government or privately are extremely high and therefore cases can be seen in each where data was falsified. Whether, a more standardized system of checking the accuracy of research can be created may be to great a task to try and take on, possibly only hindering the progression and distribution of ideas through the scientific community. On the flip side it would reduce the amount of wasted funds given to projects based unknowingly on falsified research.

      On the topic of slowing the advancement and dissemination of new ideas and technologies, political interference is obviously a hot topic issue. While there have been many comments on the need for checks on scientific pursuits, the set of ethics on which scientific pursuits are judged should have a very narrow scope and should not expand to the area of religious beliefs. Rather it must be based solely on generally agreed upon moral issues. We cannot expect that everyone, will be of the same mindset especially once religion is brought into the equation. We also should not hold others to our own belief system. Therefore, it should be up to the researcher whether or not they have personal conflicting beliefs with the work being asked of them and should be able to choose their project accordingly. We should not, however, hold everyone to these elevated restrictions.

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