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10 Ways Politicians Are Holding Back Future Technologies

by T. Pikul
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Science is so much more than men with white coats working in labs. Scientific research is slow and expensive, and scientists are always on the lookout for grants and other forms of funding. Alas, much of this funding comes from the government, which has been known to step in it from time to time. Politicians like to be loud and boisterous, and they are prone to make decisions based on what they think will poll well or what special interests tell them. With that said, it’s not surprising that a lot of scientific advances are being held up by political situations both in the US and abroad.

10Creating A Scientifically Illiterate Public

10 Scientific literacy
The US school system is not among the best in the world. American students are only average at science and particularly bad at math, and smaller and less wealthy countries easily beat the US on both counts. Not only do these low rankings make it more of a challenge to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, but scientific illiteracy can cause people to believe in things that are completely false and in some cases even dangerous: that cell phones cause brain cancer, for example, or that vaccines cause autism.

Politicians could see this as a call to increase funding for education and to get better teachers into schools, but instead they are making some very anti-scientific decisions when it comes to education. Science education has become a political issue that groups use to push particular agendas, particularly those in support of creationism or against the idea of global warming. In Tennessee, a 2012 law allows teachers to present students with alternatives to established scientific ideas (particularly evolution and climate change) without getting into trouble for deviating from the curriculum. Louisiana actually enacted a similar law a few years earlier, and, in at least 10 states, private schools can teach creationism using public funds. There’s no doubt that students graduating from these schools will have an even weaker grasp of science than the average American.

9Making It Harder To Get Online

9 online
Internet service in the US is notoriously bad. The US ranks 31st in download speed. This is a lower ranking than some much smaller and poorer nations. Because of the way Internet service is regulated in the US, most commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) are monopolies in the area they serve with no competition or impetus to upgrade their archaic services. This isn’t the case in countries like South Korea where competition forces ISPs to offer faster and cheaper service.

Well, some towns got fed up with the status quo and decided to do something about it by creating their own community broadband networks. Over 400 communities in the US have now invested in their own telecommunications networks, offering cheap high-speed Internet to their local citizenry. Google is also getting into the act with its Google Fiber project that seeks to connect us via gigabit Ethernet.

Sensing competition, the commercial ISPs are striking back and have convinced 20 states to pass laws restricting community broadband. Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, already has a community broadband network but can no longer expand it now that the state has passed a law prohibiting it from doing so. The Federal Communications Commission has the power to preempt laws like this, but, so far, nothing has been done.

8Refusing To Get Smart About Guns

8 guns
The 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School reignited the gun control debate across the US. One technology that promises to change the gun control debate is the smart gun—if we ever see it on the market.

Smart guns use added technology, such as RFID chips or biometric sensors, that prevent the gun from being fired by anyone except its owner. The hope is that this will help limit access to guns and reduce the number of people killed in firearm accidents or suicide as well as helping to prevent massacres such as Sandy Hook.

However, smart guns have been kept off the shelves because of a strange legal situation. In 2002, New Jersey passed a law mandating that once smart guns go on the market anywhere in the US all guns sold in New Jersey thereafter must be smart. Because of the effect this would have on the existing New Jersey gun market (making it illegal to sell any non-smart guns in New Jersey), attempts to sell smart guns have been met with incredible backlash with manufacturers and sellers receiving threats. What this means is that none of us can buy smart guns in the US—even those of us who want them.

7Pulling The Plug On Electric Cars

7 electric car
Electric cars have actually been around for a very long time, but their development and commercial adoption has been slow. There were attempts to develop a commercial electric car in the 1970s as well as the infamous and mysterious case of the EV-1 in the early 2000s.

More recently, with increasing worries about gas prices, gas shortages, and the environment, interest in electric cars has begun to pick up steam (or should we say current?). Leading the pack is Tesla Motors whose Model S was named Best Car of 2014 by Consumer Reports.

But Tesla is running into problems when it comes to getting its cars in the hands of consumers. Tesla wants to sell cars directly to drivers, bypassing the traditional car dealership system. But in many states, this is actually illegal because of what are known as “dealer franchise laws.” The laws state that cars must be sold through independent dealers. While some states had these laws already on the books, other states have gone after Tesla directly by passing new dealer franchise laws. New Jersey, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, and Texas are some of the states that have done this and made it harder for us to get our hands on these sweet electric vehicles.

6Banning Human Cloning

6 cloning
Cloning is a staple of science fiction stories, and it’s no surprise that scientists have long been experimenting with ways of replicating organs. But the idea of cloning remains controversial among politicians because, while the potential of therapeutic cloning excites scientists, the horror of human cloning is what seems to drive the public debate.

In the 1970s, a man named David Rorvik published a book claiming that a secretive group of scientists had successfully cloned a wealthy businessman. While the book was almost certainly a hoax, it did touch off a debate about the ethics of cloning in the media.

Two decades later, the successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep excited scientists about the possibility of therapeutic cloning which could be used to study diseases or even grow human organs for transplant. But others raised ethical concerns—namely, what would happen once the technology progressed to the point where we could clone human beings? Could people be cloned without their consent, or would cloning facilities become reserved for only the healthiest and smartest? Some nations, such as England, took the proactive step of banning human cloning altogether. The fear of human cloning is so great, in fact, that the United Nations has even taken a stand against it.

A few years ago, the cloning debate was once again reignited when a strange group called the Raelians claimed to have cloned a human being. Although the Raelians offered no actual proof, the announcement touched off a media firestorm. Concerned politicians, like Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, submitted legislation that would have created a total ban on cloning in the US and would have hindered efforts to use the technology for therapeutic purposes.

5Meddling With The Internet

5 internet
Politicians have always had a tenuous relationship with the Internet. While the Internet provides us with access to information and communication unparalleled in human history, it also worries politicians who see it as much a force for bad as for good.

Politicians have long tried to regulate the Internet and may not never stop trying. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was a recent attempt at legislation which sparked a tremendous backlash. SOPA tried to tamp down on online piracy by making it impossible for search engines to index so-called “offending” sites. But critics of the law warned that it amounted to censorship as any site could supposedly be removed from search engines, making them impossible for most of us to find.

The Internet successfully banded together against SOPA, but in its wake came CISPA, a slightly different take on the same idea. Meanwhile, in Europe, some nations attempted to adopt a “three strikes law” that would permanently disconnect Internet users after receiving three notifications of copyright infringement. The European Union is also forcing Google to remove search results.

Politicians have also gone after Internet users for exercising free speech. The mayor of Peoria, Illinois got in trouble after he sent police to raid the home of someone who he suspected was running a parody Twitter account.

4Putting The Brakes On High-Speed Rail

4 high speed rail
High-speed rail networks are pretty well established in some parts of the world, particularly in China, Japan, France, Spain, and Germany, where passengers zip between cities at speeds faster than 240 kilometers (150 mi) per hour. These networks are fast and reliable as well as cheaper and more environmentally friendly than airplanes and cars.

However, the US rail network is pretty archaic. Currently, the US only has 48 kilometers (30 mi) of tracks where trains can even hit 240 kilometers (150 mi) per hour. In 2009, President Obama proposed upgrading America’s rail network nationwide. With these upgrades, the nearly three-hour journey from New York to Washington, D.C. could be cut to just 90 minutes. But so far, not much of that proposal has materialized into action. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, new high-speed rail projects were denied the necessary funds to get off the ground.

The result has been a system where development of high-speed rail in the US is decentralized with some states pursuing it with public funds, some with private funds, and other states avoiding the issue altogether. This means that it is time consuming and expensive for rail development to overcome a myriad of obstacles such as outdated infrastructure and freight carriers that don’t want to give up their tracks to faster passenger trains.

High-speed rail is one technology that always seems to take one step forward and one step back. Politicians who embrace high-speed rail sometimes waffle when it polls poorly or when the costs turn out to be too high, and rail projects can stretch on for years or even decades.

3Delaying The Adoption Of Renewable Energy

3 renew ener
Renewable energy may be key to the survival of our planet. Renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal generate far less carbon pollution than coal and natural gas. Beyond saving the environment, renewable energy offers other benefits as well, such as the diversifying of energy sources and keeping electricity prices down.

In 2008, the Ohio legislature voted that by 2025 the state would get 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Then, in 2014, they stunningly reversed course and overturned the standard. In Maine, a similar story might play out with the state considering overturning its own renewable energy requirement. In both states, politicians are choosing to back the special interests of the fossil fuel industry over the best interests of their citizens.

Even if adoption of renewable energy is being slowed, at least we can reduce emissions from coal plants, right? Maybe not. The same interest groups opposing renewable energy are also trying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing regulations that would cut coal plant emissions meaning that not only will it take longer for our planet to switch to renewable sources, but there will be more pollution along the way.

2Eliminating Funding For Scientific Research

2 fund research
Scientific research is very expensive. It is also a slow process; biomedical research, for example, can take up to 20 years, and the immediate benefits of the research are not always obvious. When Sarah Palin criticized the government for spending money on fruit fly research, she didn’t realize that a decade-long study into fruit flies was actually giving scientists valuable insights into autism spectrum disorders in humans.

It is unfortunate that so much scientific funding is dictated by politicians. Although the US spends far more on scientific research than any other country, around one-third of that comes from the public sector. The importance of this funding was demonstrated during the 2013 government shutdown when scientists lost access to their labs, research, and equipment, sometimes with disastrous results.

In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for handing out federal grants for scientific research. But politicians have stepped in by telling the agency to prioritize funding for STEM fields over the social sciences and requiring the NSF to give Congress a justification for everything it funds. Politicians are fond of saying ”I am not a scientist” but are also very keen on micromanaging what scientists do.

Some have suggested that private companies step in to fill the gaps, but it remains doubtful that these companies would be interested in funding research with no immediate commercial appeal.

1Outlawing Stem Cell Research

1 stem cell
Stem cells are cells that can be grown into many different types of cells. This includes those that have very specific functions, such as cells that help regenerate bone marrow. The scientific and medical potential of stem cells should be obvious, and human embryonic stem cells, which are laboratory-grown stem cells derived from human embryos, are particularly useful to scientists.

Given the outrage over cloning, it shouldn’t be a surprise that work with stem cells is controversial. During the research process, the human embryos are destroyed, which some saw as akin to murder. Former President George W. Bush sought to greatly restrict stem cell research by declaring that only stem cells created before 2001 could be used in the lab. “I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator,” he said. As a result, stem cell research in the US was made much more difficult. Bush wasn’t the first president to do something like this; Ronald Reagan banned research on fetal tissue transplants for similar reasons.

Fortunately, not everyone saw things the same way as Bush. In 2004, the state of California voted to fund stem cell research. And, in 2009, President Obama overturned the federal ban, allowing medical progress to continue.

fact checked by Jamie Frater