Column on Science and Government

Politicizing Science
Tibor R. Machan
As many who read my columns would know, I am an avid reader of Science
News, the magazine of the Society for Science and the Public located in
Washington, D. C. It’s now been a few decades that I have been kept
abreast of developments in a great variety of sciences, natural and
social, by reading this publication.
Recently the editors have made some changes, some of them quite desirable
but others objectionable. For example, the size and format has changed.
The magazine now is no longer a little thin "book" but is, like so many
others, a formidable size and the writing is more developed than it has
been in the past. Some new features have also been added but one of these
is not a welcome one, at least not by anyone who would insist on keeping
government and science separated other than where military readiness
requires it. The feature I am referring to is called "Comment" wherein
various luminaries opine about science and public affairs.
In the issue before me, for example, Steven Hyman, provost at Harvard
University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health,
offers his opinion about how attitudes toward governmental support of
science education fare in America versus elsewhere around the globe. Hyman
is, of course, doing what all special interest advocates do, namely,
asking for more money for what concerns them, in this case the growth of
research, development, and science education. Like other special interest
representatives, Hyman makes his wishes clear now that there is likely to
be regime change in Washington: "[I]t is much to be hoped that the next
president of the United States will recognize the benefits of a healthy
scientific enterprise. Ideally the new administration will craft policies
to produce steady growth in federal research budgets, more welcoming
immigration policies for foreign scientists and respect for science…."
Actually, ideally, if that is not too fanciful a term to use in this
context, the federal government–indeed, any government–of a free society
ought to refrain from backing any science that does not directly bear on
its job of securing the rights of its citizens. That is what government is
for in free countries and any other kind of support for science is no
different from supporting special groups of citizens rather than the
public as a whole.
In a free society the support of the public as a whole consists of
providing everyone with the liberty to pursue his or her own ends in
voluntary cooperation with like-minded and willing fellow citizens. It is
wrong–political malpractice–to take funds away from some and transfer
it, without their consent, to others for however worthy a purpose. Whether
other countries breach this principle of free government is irrelevant.
Just as in the United States the freedom of the press and of religious
worship is protected and a proper separation between government and these
elements of society is legally upheld to a substantial degree, so there
should be no involvement in the funding of science.
One example Hyman mentions of what he believes needs more support than it
receives is stem cell research and it is a good one because it illustrates
just how similar government funding of and involvement in science is to
government funding of and involvement in religion. Many citizens believe
it is wrong to do stem cell research, mostly on religious grounds.
Whatever one may think of the merits of this belief, in a free country
citizens have the right to live by their convictions provided they respect
others’ equal rights. But taking funds from some of them to support work
they believe is immoral violates this principle. And stem cell research
isn’t the only kind that involves such a violation.
Now my ideas on this topic are, of course, radical and will not even get a
fair hearing in the mainstream media (which, being so fond of the First
Amendment, really ought to get on the same page with me here). Nonetheless
the point needs to be made, especially when someone who is as prominent as
Steven Hyman chimes in on the opposite side.
My more immediate concern, however, is that Science News is drifting away
from its mission of giving good coverage to scientific work toward
becoming a platform for what is clearly an insidious political agenda. I
guess the temptation to steal from Peter to fund the work of Paul, if you
like Paul’s work a lot, is too powerful to resist.

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