Controversies in Physical Science Research

Instructor: Michael Blosser

Michael has a Masters in Physics and a Masters in International Development. He has over 5 years of teaching experience, teaching Physics, Math, and English classes.

Political, religious, and social factors all have influenced the funding and development of physical science research throughout the years. This lesson will introduce a few cases of physical science research and technology that have been mired in controversy due to political, religious, and social factors.

Political, Religious, and Social Influence on Physical Science Research

Whether we want to admit it or not, every day we make decisions influenced by political, religious, and social factors. While scientists attempt to be as objective as possible, they and their research are also influenced by these factors, whether due to bias or simply the availability of funding. The physical sciences, which include geology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy, are no exception.

The large overlap between the political, religious and social aspects of any issue can make their effects difficult to tease apart. In many countries, for example, conservative parties are influenced by religious concerns about social issues. The Republican party in the US and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, to pick two, are both nationalist parties with strong religious ties. Religion can also fuel liberal movements, as has Catholic liberation theology in Latin America, which aligned parts of the church and the public in pushing for social change. In addition to their effect on each other, each area of concern has direct effects on physical science research:

The politics of a country can determine if certain physical science research is funded, how much it is funded, and the priorities of the research. For example, when President John F Kennedy came into office in the United States and challenged the country to land a man on the moon in his seminal 1961 speech, the budget of the North American Space Agency (NASA) ballooned, making a moon landing possible years earlier than predicted.

Religious factors also influence physical science research. In both more- and less- developed countries, religion has a big impact and influence on society and therefore a big influence in politics, and can help influence whether certain physical science research is seen as morally wrong. For example, when Galileo Galilei published his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun, contradicting the Catholic Church's teaching that the Earth was the center of the universe, he was put on trial for heresy. Even today, religion has a vital role in what type of physical scientific theories are promoted. For example, the influential Catholic Church supports the theory of the Big Bang (that life started all at once and expanded out from a singularity) and rejects other theories of the origin of the universe because the Big Bang theory fits with the Bible verse that God created something out of nothing.

Finally, social factors also play a big part in physical science research, and can depend on what the needs and wants of a society are. For example, a society in a developing country that is in the middle of a famine would more likely push for the funding and development of physical science research that is focused on water sources than on astrophysics.

These three factors all have a great influence on physical science research and have led to controversy regarding how and what physical science research and technology should be funded and developed. The following sections will discuss a few controversial areas of physical science research that have been influenced by religion, politics and society.

Energy Sources

The funding and development of science research in regards to energy sources has been heavily influenced by political, religious, and social factors. Political factors influence government decisions to fund or subsidize fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and gas, and alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind. The funding of physical science research regarding anthropogenic climate change (the idea that the recent increase in the world's temperature and changes in climate are a result of human activity) is also controversial and heavily influenced by political, religious, and social factors. For example, Republican representatives, who generally disagree with the scientific conclusion that climate change is human-made and partially due to the burning of fossil fuels, proposed to increase funding for the research and development of coal, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels to $645 million for the 2017 budget and decrease funding for alternative energy research and development by $248 million.

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