Feathering the Golden Fleece

Six lawmakers endorse a new award to honor the best federally funded scientific research, seeking to drown out criticism that such spending is often wasteful.

April 26, 2012

WASHINGTON – For years, funny-sounding research projects supported by federal funds were lambasted as wasteful spending and given the Congressional equivalent of a Razzie -- Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award.

But thriftiness can come at the price of innovation, researchers say, and some of the best discoveries come from quirky projects. Seeking to highlight the value of offbeat inquiry – and counter criticism of government-funded basic research – several organizations advocating for science and universities introduced the Golden Goose Award on Wednesday with the bipartisan support of six congressmen.

The first of the annual prizes will be presented this fall after a committee of university administrators and working scientists sifts through nominations. (Those wanting to suggest a scientist or research team for the honor should e-mail info@goldengooseaward.org to request a nomination form.) Federally funded studies -- including those that "may have appeared unusual or obscure," or had "serendipitous" results -- that led to significant breakthroughs are eligible.

The awards are a not-so-subtle criticism of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece, which targeted examples of perceived government waste (often in federally funded research) in the 1970s and ’80s.

Among the late Wisconsin Democrat’s honorees were a $2,500 grant to study why people cheated at tennis in Arlington, Va., and a $1 million project that, among other things, examined the effects of marijuana on sexual arousal. He also gave a Golden Fleece to a researcher studying the sex lives of screw-worms, something he apologized for after learning of that project’s importance to agriculture.

To be fair, the Golden Fleeces didn’t condemn all research. Proxmire once awarded the National Science Foundation an award of commendation – tongue out of cheek – for consistently using taxpayer money responsibly.

Decades later, in an era in which “pork barrel spending” and “earmark” are political expletives, Proxmire’s vilification of perceived government waste still resonates in some quarters. That can make research projects such as “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” and “The Comparative Study of Friction Piles” easy targets for spending reductions.

But those two studies, and countless others with oddball names, paid dividends for society. The guinea pig study found a treatment for infant humans with hearing loss, while the friction research helped improve construction materials.

Representative Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, came up with the idea for the Golden Goose. Too often, he said, worthy studies are unfairly criticized while little attention is given to scientific successes.

“Sometimes the bad news is not really bad news,” the congressman said, “just something that it is easy to take a cheap shot at.”

But those cheap shots are easy to dish out, especially as Congress struggles to make up deficits and weed out ineffective programs. Cooper contends foundational research is the wrong place to slash funding.

“We all know we’re under significant budgetary pressure,” he said. “But scientific research should not be the subject of disproportionate cuts.”

Cooper spoke at the program’s unveiling Wednesday, along with Republican Representatives Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Robert Dold of Illinois. Three other House Democrats – Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Rush Holt of New Jersey and Paul Tonko of New York – have also endorsed the award.

While Cooper’s gold-plated geese will honor the best of federally funded research, the fact is that some projects flop and most fail to achieve breakthroughs. It’s those projects that don’t lead to cures or new technologies that attract much of the negative press. Cooper argues such results are the nature of science. “A single breakthrough can counter a thousand failures,” he said.

Alan Leshner, who leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was once a target of a Golden Fleece when studying why rats use exercise wheels. (The answer: To regulate body composition -- the same reason people run.) Speaking to a group of scientists and legislators, Leshner said he suspects his project wasn't the only one unfairly ridiculed by the Wisconsin senator.

“I’m sure each of you could think of Golden Fleece recipients who could go ‘Na-na-na-na-na-na’ today,” he said.

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