Today's post is going to get a little heavy. Basically, I value your opinion and since all of you come from different backgrounds with different political views, I want to get your take on this issue.
I'll start with something neat though. I went to the departmental seminar Friday. The guy speaking was a big deal neurobiologist doing some work on neural dynamics. He takes brain cells from mice and grows them in a culture. He places several electrodes in the culture and gives the cells electrical stimulation and records the electrical response to the stimulation. The next step in his research was to turn the response from the cells into something "meaningful" like movement of a picture of a mouse on a computer screen. He uses the movement of the mouse on the screen to determine the electrical stimulation that the cells receive next. He essentially sees if the cells can learn and interact with the mouse on the screen by using a closed feedback loop on the cells. If that isn't entirely creepy enough, he next replaced the computer mouse with a robot mouse. The robot mouse received input based on the location of a second robot mouse whose movements were random. The closed loop became: random mouse movement-->signal to cells-->signal to robot mouse-->random mouse movement
What ended up happening in his lab was the robot mouse sort of chased the random mouse around for awhile. Keep in mind, the robot mouse was being steered by a Petri dish full of brain cells. It totally blew my mind. The next step, the speaker said, was a plan funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse where he incorporates dopamine into the closed loop. Then there will be crack-addicted brain cells driving robots. All hell's gonna break loose.
Where am I going with all this? Well, on the speaker's very last slide were his ackowledgements to all the agencies that fund his work. Under the list was a big peace sign with the phrase "No Military Funding." This brings up a sticky area for us scientists. I am not trying to make a blanket statement, but many scientists tend to be liberal and against our current war. Some of the most influential scientists are even pacifist. Should those of us who aren't thrilled with our current military predicament accept funding from military agencies?
I personally don't know the answer to this question. It isn't as easy as it appears to be on the surface. Let's immediately toss out the most obvious objections to military funding, i.e. developing technology that goes directly into weapons used soley to kill people. I don't know a lot of scientists that would be able to do that though they must exist. To me, that's a no brainer. But consider this. People in my line of work develop devices that are at the forefront of technology for things like wireless communication, magnetic memory storage, and portable refrigeration. All this is technology that the military is willing to throw money at you to develop because they want the top of the line for soldiers. I want our soldiers to be safe, it's not their fault they're fighting this horrific war but how do I know they are using my wireless technology to defend themselves and not to wreak havoc? And whether or not I accept the money that is thrown at me doesn't change the fact that in most cases the technology civilians use is handed down from the military anyway. This is our defense-oriented society; the big bucks go to military funding and Joe Schmoe has to be patient until the army is willing to pass it along. This mentality doesn't leave a lot of options for us applied physicists. These days funding is tighter than it's ever been and my advisor cannot afford to pick and choose whose money to accept. We're lucky to have anything (for the record, I am currently funded by the National Science Foundation, though I used to be funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencies until that ran out).
Overall, I guess I think it depends on an individual's situation. I don't meant to criticize this scientist that spoke Friday, but being a big name studying such fascination science I'm sure he can afford to pick and choose his funding. And it's a lot more obvious to me how the military can use crack-addicted mouse-brain robots to harm others. But what about us more mundane, gray-area physicists? Am I justifying accepting money from "the man"? Am I compromising my beliefs and being a hypocrite? Or am I just going through a typical crisis of conscience, one every scientist must face?
If I haven't bored you to tears yet, check out this article from the Village Voice I found about the speaker I referred to earlier.