Since coming to grad school, I've encountered very little politicking in my courses. And why would I? I expected that out of my philosophy courses as an undergrad. It's hard to figure out how to snipe at a political figure when you're talking about northern blots or the mechanism of ribosomal translation.
However, my bioinformatics professor snuck some of her politics into a lecture the other day, and it really rubbed me the wrong way.
We were discussing the HapMap project. The layman's description is that it seeks to identify and classify genetic diversity across different populations of people across the globe. The project is funded almost exclusively by governmental money (both here and abroad).
We talked partly about the non-scientific aspects of the project (scope, methodoly, ethics, etc.), but at one point she snuck a bit in there about reasons for not doing the project. Why spend all this money on a project like this, she asked, when there are so many people in this country and globally who don't have access to basic healthcare needs?
I'm still flabbergasted by this. Why are you inserting politics into a class about science?
But I'm not just blogging to whine about it, so I'll take the bait: Why should we spend money on this, or any scientific venture, when people out there are in need?
This question has unsettling consequences to me. Imagine just shutting down all progress because it is a better priority to ensure those in need are not. It's a lot of money. Her gripe is about universal healthcare. The HapMap project has had about $120M pumped into it so far, which is a drop in the bucket for the billions needed for universal health care.
Still, I don't think it's right to just shut down scientific inquiry for the sake of welfare. Most advancements in science and technology actually help alleviate these needs: increases in food production, new medical treatments invented, cheaper materials or procedures developed, etc.
And if you really want to get grumpy about it, when do you stop? At what point do you stop diverting money away from science for the sake of welfare? (Ponies for everyone!)
That last question is more of a non-starter, but I think the final answer falls on governmental priorities. I think the government has a larger stake in promoting scientific advancement, which everyone benefits from, than in offering universal health care, which is greatly more expensive with a lower return on investment (Alternatively, insert your preferred social welfare program).