What makes science research valuable?

The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.

People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.

Questions like:

  • Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
  • Will the findings advance medicine?
  • Will it improve our national defense?

(You can find the full list here)

You can download his whole document here.

Science Magazine Responds

Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists

Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.

“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/analysis-senator-s-attack-cheerleading-study-obscures-government-s-role-training

Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club

These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.

http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/06/21/533840751/episode-779-shrimp-fight-club

Why Native Americans do not separate religion from science

“Scientists began thinking and writing about how Native Americans understand the natural world in the 20th century. Instead of seeing a conflict between Western science and Native American knowledge, they started thinking about ways to learn how Native Americans addressed environmental and ecological issues differently.”

https://theconversation.com/why-native-americans-do-not-separate-religion-from-science-75983

There’s A War On Sugar. Is It Justified?

Interesting podcast episode that delves into whether sugar should be regulated. In evaluating that claim, they delve into the difficulty of proving claims of about health and nutrition scientifically. What does good science look like in nutrition? How do you prove a causal relationship? Both relevant questions when we look at this issue.
“Some people argue that sugar should be regulated, like alcohol and tobacco, on the grounds that it’s addictive and toxic. How much sense does that make? We hear from  a regulatory advocate, an evidence-based skeptic, a former FDA commissioner — and the organizers of Milktoberfest.”

http://freakonomics.com/podcast/theres-war-sugar-justified/

Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever – CRISPR

“Designer babies, the end of diseases, genetically modified humans that never age. Outrageous things that used to be science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. The only thing we know for sure is that things will change irreversibly.”

 

What you need to know about CRISPR | Ellen Jorgensen

Should we bring back the wooly mammoth? Or edit a human embryo? Or wipe out an entire species that we consider harmful? The genome-editing technology CRISPR has made extraordinary questions like these legitimate — but how does it work? Scientist and community lab advocate Ellen Jorgensen is on a mission to explain the myths and realities of CRISPR, hype-free, to the non-scientists among us.

To what extent is forensic science actually “science”?

This is an interesting example of the debate over what science is and who gets to define it. The validity and value of the forensic sciences has been greatly debated over time and despite people’s confidence in these sciences (mostly because of tv shows), research has proven that these sciences are unreliable. What happens when questioning the value of science undermines the institutions built upon that science? In this case, law enforcement seems to have exclusive domain over determining the value and validity of these sciences and these sciences are made to serve their purposes.

“Every independent critique of our forensic science system comes back to the same basic conclusion about both the root of the problem and how to fix it: Forensic science rests under the exclusive control of police and prosecutors, and its legitimacy and integrity have suffered as a result.”

“The professional association for the nation’s district attorneys criticized the report for its insufficient attention to “the ancient debate over precisely what constitutes ‘science’ ” while asserting that the final arbiter of good science should be lawyers and courtrooms, not scientists and laboratories.”

And another article from the Times about the same issue. Once again, gets to the question about what science is.

A new definition would add 102 planets to our solar system — including Pluto

The debate about whether Pluto is or is not a planet is an interesting one in that it highlights many interesting aspects of what we study in TOK.

Pluto itself did not change but the definitions we use to define what comprises our solar system did change. When we only knew of 9 objects of a particular size orbiting the sun, the inclusion of Pluto as a planet was not controversial but as new objects were added to the list, scientists needed to come up with a definition that either excluded Pluto or added many more objects to our list of planets.

It’s important to remember that like most definitions and language, meaning is based on agreement and man made rules. There is no “cosmic” definition of a planet. This article discusses this concept to some degree.

“For years, astronomers, planetary scientists and other space researchers have fought about what to call the small, icy world at the edge of our solar system. Is it a planet, as scientists believed for nearly seven decades? Or must a planet be something bigger, something more dominant, as was decided by vote at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006?

“The issue can bring conversations to a screeching halt, or turn them into shouting matches. “Sometimes,” Runyon said, “it’s just easier not to bring it up.””

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/03/20/a-new-definition-would-add-102-planets-to-our-solar-system-including-pluto/?utm_term=.de3d8f7f4296&wpisrc=nl_draw2&wpmm=1#comments

Here are some interesting comments from the article as well. They illustrate some of the interesting aspects of the “debate” where people can get very emotional about the issue, as illustrated by the first comment below. But the second comment raises an interesting question about whether we would care as much if we hadn’t discovered Pluto almost a hundred years ago.Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 9.59.39 AM

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