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Popular science

Government funding for research is bound to come with bias

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

"It is the glory of God to conceal things; but the glory of kings is to search things out" (Proverbs 25:2). The King who wrote this was famous for wisdom and observation, two attributes of the ideal scientist. Ideal science is a matter of focused attention and wise interpretation in searching out the things God has concealed. And like so many other ideals, it doesn't exist in real life.

Last March, when President Obama lifted the so-called "ban" on embryonic stem cell research (actually a limitation of federal funding), he stated his view of the relationship between government and research: "It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient-especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda-and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

Like many of the president's statements, this one is grand and sweeping and pretty much impossible in practical terms. It's based on what we might call the romantic view of science that's a fairly recent development in human history.

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Until the last 200 years or so, science was better known as "natural philosophy," a free enterprise by men of leisure who were interested in how the world works. Not until invention launched from theory in the Industrial Age did "Science" come into its own, as a savior and an authority. But the scope and sway of science as an absolute power is misunderstood; it's not often a matter of "what scientists tell us" as what we want to hear.

Obama's statement suggests that science is one more thing government ought not to fund. Research is an unfolding process that can't often be hurried, only swollen with additional money that often will be diverted to inessential "lab junk" and conference junkets at expensive resorts. Decisions about where the money goes, in both government and corporate R&D, are determined by expert panels that review the evidence and make recommendations. Experts are flesh and blood like everyone else, with their own biases and preferences. In industry, market value will make the ultimate decision. In government, political advantage, popular demand, or a sponsoring legislator's personal worldview weights the scale.

Popular demand is not usually the best indicator of where money should go. Reason magazine recently ran a cartoon showing "The Science News Cycle": first, controlled experimentation in a university research lab demonstrates a causal relationship between A and B, under certain conditions. The results are presented by the university public relations department (got to have PR to attract dollars) as a potential link between A and B, which is interpreted by the internet as "Scientists out to kill us again!" passed on to CNN as "What will this mean for Obama?" and exposed by local Eyewitness News as "What you don't know about A can kill you! More at 11. . . ."

A little learning is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of reporters and internet bloggers. Reasonable concerns about lead poisoning propelled passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which lowers the amounts of lead that can be used in products made for children. This has forced publishers, for example, into a scramble to prove that their books are safe for little hands. Meanwhile, research shows that all humans can tolerate a certain amount of lead, and poisoning can be dealt with more efficiently by eliminating the old peeling paint in inner city apartment buildings.

The president presents a vision of harnessing the power of science to cure mankind's sorrows. It's a dream of centuries, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, "What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." If it comes down to a choice, I'd rather be controlled by profit motives than political ones.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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