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Odd Science: What Looks Like a Big Goose Egg May Actually Be Golden

Hey member of Congress: Honk if you like basic science research!
A flock of Golden Goose Awards. (PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS)

A flock of Golden Goose Awards. (PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS)

Thursday, the U.S. Congress honored researchers who studied lizard spit, taught computers how to identify true love, and boiled bacteria. The punchline, such as it is, wasn’t that the politicians were mocking squandered tax dollars, but spotlighting apparently inane projects funded by Uncle Sam that ultimately paid off for Americans.

The lizard spit, actually the venom of Gila monsters, was instrumental in developing the diabetes medicine Byetta. The matchmaking computer algorithm helps connect patients needing a kidney with donors. And replicating the enzymes of the bacteria, Thermus aquaticus, started us down the road to a little technology known as biotech. (The awardees are listed below.)

“We’ve all read stories about the study with the wacky title, the research project from left field,” Jim Cooper, a congressman from Tennessee, was quoted in a release about the D.C. ceremony. “But off-the-wall science yields medical miracles. We can’t abandon research funding only because we can’t predict how the next miracle will happen.”

Last year Cooper debuted this new prize, the Golden Goose Award, to educate the public (and in particular Congress)about the value of basic science and why legislators should vote to pay for it. Winners are researchers whose federally funded work has resulted in a breakthrough—“life-saving medicines, game-changing social and behavioral insights, major technological advances.” Government grants may be pork, this suggests, but it sure can be nutritious.

That Congress needs an occasional reminder about the value of basic science isn’t all that remarkable. It’s hard to invest for a future payoff when there’s so many more tantalizing baubles to buy now. But Congress of late, or at least some mostly Republican members of it, has gone beyond bullying the funny-looking kids in the NSF’s kindergarten to an all-out assault, especially on natural or social science research that might turn up inconvenient results or other research without an immediate payoff.

In a May op-ed on "The Congressional War on the Social Sciences," Kenneth Prewitt, the director of the Scholarly Knowledge Project at Columbia University (and a former high-level bureaucrat), explained the shortsightedness of this approach:

Science is not a series of discrete, unrelated projects. It is an interconnected enterprise, which is why research on schoolyard bullies can unexpectedly explain suicide bombers, or why studying government decision-making under uncertainty—for which a political scientist, Herbert Simon, received a Nobel Prize—is applicable to explanations of failed states, which in turn are home to terrorist cells.

Prewitt opened his commentary with a litany of recent Congressional slams at science policy, including a vote engineered by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn to eliminate NSF funding for any political science research except for grants the NSF director is willing to certify as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Even if you’re willing to grant this legitimacy as reining in spending, Congress has been active corralling science initiatives that don’t even cost money—like naming an honorary science laureate for the United States. What had been seen as an innocuous and bipartisan effort to create an unpaid “national role model who can encourage students to learn more about the sciences” was torpedoed last week by House Republicans who feared such a role model might acknowledge the existence of anthropogenic climate change (or maybe even evolution).

Of course, there’s always been a little science bashing in Washington.

The name Golden Goose intentionally echoes a more dubious congressional honor, the late William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award, which for 13 years gleefully attacked suspect federal spending with a media-friendly blunderbuss. The National Science Foundation was the subject of the first two awards, for an $84,000 grant to determine why people fall in love, and for a series of grants (shared with NASA and the Office of Naval Research) totaling a half million dollars looking into why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws. “The funding of this nonsense makes me almost angry enough to scream and kick and even clench my jaw,” ran a typically punny explanation Proxmire—a Democrat, by the way—released to the press. “It’s time for the federal government to get out of this monkey business.”

While no one disputes the ability of the U.S. government (or any bureaucracy) to waste money with alarming frequency, Proxmire’s targets weren’t always deserving of his “praise.” The monkey jaw research, for example, was probing the roots of aggression; Proxmire’s bombastic assault essentially killed psychologist Ronald Hutchison’s promising line of research—“over the next two years, Hutchinson’s grantors pulled out their funding, one by excruciating one,” The Scientist described it in 1988. (There’s a further moral to the story: Hutchison sued Proxmire for defamation, invasion of privacy, loss of income, and infliction of mental cruelty, and in a case that ultimately involved the Supreme Court, won a settlement and an apology.)

While Proxmire eventually stopped giving out his award, the proclivity of politicians to take potshots at research they haven’t properly researched continues. Arizona’s John McCain several times has taken potshots at projects, such as one involving grizzly bear DNA in 2008 or cocaine-addled monkeys (always with the monkeys!) in 2010. The latter came in a list of 100 Recovery Act projects that McCain and Tom Coburn (always with the Coburn!) blasted as "terrible" wastes of taxpayer dough. As Emily Badger wrote for us soon after that report came out how many of the terrible projects were probing really important topics: “Sure, some obscure studies may be a hefty lift to justify, but they can’t all be terrible.”

For those, we have another award, custom made for silliness: the IgNobels.

* * *

It would be a shame not to hand the second-year recipients of the Golden Goose Awards a, umm, goose egg, by not naming them. From the non-profit Golden Goose organization:

• David Gale (deceased), Lloyd Shapley, and Alvin Roth, whose work, decades apart, grew from theoretical mathematical algorithms about marriage stability and moneyless markets to school choice programs for urban school systems, the program that matches new medical school graduates with their first hospital residencies, and the national kidney exchange that matches compatible patients and donors from around the country. Shapley and Roth were awarded Nobel Prizes in 2012. (Gale, having died, was not eligible for a Nobel.)

• John Eng, a medical researcher and practicing physician whose study of the poisonous venom produced by the Gila monster led to a drug that protects millions of diabetics from such complications as blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage.

• Thomas Brock and Hudson Freeze, whose discovery of a heat-resistant microorganism at Yellowstone National Park helped make possible the biotechnology industry and the genomics revolution.