Wednesday, February 08, 2006

NASA Chief Backs Agency Openness - New York Times

In an interesting continuation of the saga, it seems that the political appointment who managed to muzzle the top NASA scientist on climate change did not graduate from university despite claiming so on his resume.

Anyway, I am not naive enough to think that science can be divorced from politics or that the administration will not interfere at all. However, I would like to argue that there should be no necessary link and the government should take a light handed approach when it comes to scientific consensus.

There is not question as to who has ultimate control over public funds, that would of course be the public from which the funds came from. What the government/administration does with tax revenue is arguably spending it on the basis of a trustee-beneficiary relationship where it is expected that they would spend it in good faith and not to simply enrich themselves.

But at the same time, we know that there are tremendous divergent opinions on various issues in society, some more sincerely and validly held than others but nevertheless having the same normative subjective validity. So an issue that might possibly arise is to whether such public funds should be applied to controversial matters like funding/subsidising abortion clinics, stem-cell research, faith-based organisations, the ministry of education (not education mind you) or the military.

I think it is fairly evident then, that the only possible way to determine such action must be to determine if it creates more societal utility than harm. There really is not other objective method to determine this issue.

But even if we were to reject the above i.e by proponents of the minimalist state, it can be safely said that the government should at the very least provide public goods i.e. goods that the free market will not provide or will be consumed at a sub-optimal level. So defence, lighthouses, education and scientific research will probably still exist.

But to touch on the last bit on scientific research, the issue is who should determine what is researched? If we go by the logic of the state being the provider of public goods then what tends to happen is that the private sector produces the R&D that produces material goods (generally at least), while the government does the 'Blue sky research' of discovery. The problem is that these tend not to have extrinsic value i.e. some form of immediate application e.g. the supercollider or may offend some part of the populace e.g. controversial sexual research (see Aug 2004 issue of Discover).

The problem is that these research have tremendous scientific value and is recognised as such by the scientific community. This is because to get a grant to study these things, you have to endure a very rigourous peer-review process, sort of like jumping through hoops on fire backwards while blindfolded. And very often research has been done where the practical application of the discovery was only much much later e.g. transistors, lasers and x-rays.

Similarly, the controversial research has very practical applications in understanding the spread of diseases and how best to curb them. The simplistic notion of the pro-abstinence (abstinence-only) camp fails miserably when trying to deal with sexual epidemics simply because they do not understand the much more complex social interactions that propergate the spread of such diseases.

On a last tangential point, I also think it is worth pointing out that though the scientific consensus has been wrong, it has always been science and the scientific community that provided the new theorem and paradigm.




Post a Comment

<< Home