Wednesday, June 25, 2008

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.
Machan is the editor of Liberty and R&D (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2002).

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