Your question immediately reminded me of when AIDS first became a serious threat during the early 1980s. Because of the dangers the disease presented, particularly to the growing gay culture, the international medical community immediately began to push toward a cure. Billions of dollars were infused into research, and medicinal help soon became available to what once seemed to be an incurable and always deadly disease.
I believe that society and culture do affect scientific discovery. Depending upon what people believe, they can support or hinder studies to create new drugs, or test new drugs or procedures. The more liberal the society, the more likely they are to support advancements in science. However, the more conservative a society is, the less likely it is that experiments will take place if there is a moral dilemma present.
A society's ability to take risks will also affect scientific discovery. Trying unknown treatments can result in failure or success, but without trying, who knows? I always think of the first heart patients: if they had not been willing to try something new, modern methods to improve heart health and prolong life might not be available today.
If people refuse to donate their bodies to science, it hinders the scientific community's ability to study diseases in death and create not only hypotheses regarding how to treat certain illnesses, but to go on to turn theories and ideas into real alternatives that can save lives.
In terms of culture, religious or philosophic beliefs might hinder the work of science in a specific area if this work is considered unethical or foolish.
An example of how culture effects science dramatically occurred withn the last five years. While CERN was progressing toward start-up on the Large Hadron Collider--which is designed to "recreate conditions at the time of the Big Bang" and thus find the hypothesized Higgs Boson--a man in Hawaii started a protest about the safety of the LHC experiment and initiated a court case to halt start-up. His protest had the effect of delaying LHC and precipitating a more thorough study of its safety--no small undertaking. His cultural background and perspective deemed an experiment that admits to intending to create mini-black holes and stranglets too dangerous to proceed with. Science may not have been effected tremendously but the incident illustrates that cultural ideas, beliefs and and values can and do effect science and the direction of progress of science.
Some people believe that some cultures are more or less receptive to the idea of scientific progress. They argue that some cultures are more traditional and conservative and therefore resist progress. If this is true, then such cultures will have less in the way of scientific discovery. This would be a case of culture having an effect on scientific discovery.
Take stem cell research as an example. Because the main source of stem cells for scientists has been frozen human embryos in fertility clinics that were going to be destroyed, this was socially controversial and many people argued against such research on religious and moral grounds. This cut off funding under President Bush and research became slower and more difficult. Sometimes culture inhibits research.
On the other hand, cancer research is pretty much universally favored, and widespread social networks, organizations and fundraisers work to direct money, time and support for continuing such research.
So basically, depending on society's views on the specific scientific advance, culture can help or hinder scientific progress.
You also might like to think about the way that culture can result in different kinds of scientific discovery. For example, a brilliant medical case you might like to research into more is Chinese Medicine vs. Western Medicine. The two are actually incredibly different, with Chinese Medicine being based on a holistic view of the body and the Western view of Medicine being based on a scientific, cause and effect approach.
Absolutely! For one thing, some levels of scientific discovery cost quite a bit of money to accomplish, so a society's ability and willingness to fund research can have a huge impact. For one example, the Cold War in the 1950's and 1960's caused the US to divert enormous amounts of money into research that culminated in the landing on the moon.
I'd like to see this moved to the Science Discussion Forum so you could get more examples in response to this interesting question.
Absolutely, society or culture impact how, when and what kinds of scientific discoveries are made at any given point in time. There are numerous examples to illustrate this connection.
The field of medicine contains many prime illustrations of the connection between events in society and scientific research and discovery. Historically, polio crippled or killed thousands of people around the world every year. Medical researchers had looked for a cure but received even more support in that search when polio victim Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States. After seven years of concentrated research and testing, the team led by Jonas Salk announced the development of an oral vaccine for polio in 1955.