Golden Goose Awards: Honk If You Support Basic Research

Golden Goose Award logoIt’s awards season, and among the Grammys and Oscars are what we might term the Gooseys.

The Gooseys—actually the Golden Goose Awards—don’t go to performers, or anyone actively seeking the public eye. Instead, they go to researchers who, while they might like a little acclaim, are doing the kind of counter-intuitive work that’s more likely to get them criticized for wasting the public’s wealth than lauded for enhancing the public weal.

“Science that is ‘strange’ to Congress can lead to the next scientific breakthrough,” explained U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Illinois, “and these scientific inquiries are vital for America to maintain its place as an innovative and exceptional nation.” And so in 2012 a coalition of academic, business, and scientific groups, with the active encouragement of some members of Congress, created the Golden Goose. The award honors these strange—and federally funded–researchers whose work might seem bereft of significant practical applications but which results “in major economic or other benefits to society.” Recipients are selected by a panel of scientists and researchers.

The first Goosey of 2014, awarded at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting currently taking place in Chicago, goes to a researcher whose work calculating the likelihood of black holes colliding with each other led to the creation of web browser.

Larry Smarr was studying gravitational physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he realized that the U.S. didn’t have the computing power, literally, necessary for his and other data-crunching-heavy investigations. So he asked the National Science Foundation to create a university-level supercomputing center, then went on to direct the National Center for Supercomputing Applications when he got his wish. In that role, he created a team in which Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina in turn created Mosaic, the world’s first widely used graphical Web browser. As a Goosey press release  reminds us, “today virtually every consumer computing device that accesses information, from smartphones to televisions, from tablets to automobiles, contains a graphical web browser.” (After surviving a diet of Skittles and Mountain Dew while crafting Mosaic, Andreessen and Bina went on to found Netscape.)

“The Golden Goose Award celebrates unexpected discoveries, and there’s no better example than the World Wide Web,” Rep. Jim Cooper, the Wisconsin Democrat who with Illinois Republican Hultgren helps shepherd the Golden Geese, said in a statement. “The Web is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments and is transforming our planet. Without the unanticipated consequences from Dr. Smarr’s research, we’d be trapped in an informational black hole. His success reminds us that we never know where science might lead.”

Although 2014’s first Goosey celebrates gadgetry, social and behavioral science are also honored (and in need of similar reinforcement). As Ken Prewitt explained in an op-ed last year, “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.”

As always, some of this might seem self-evident–but it isn’t, especially for those laboring in the belly of a different discipline’s beast. A current example appeared on the Forbes website this week, where Henry I. Miller, a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, specifically called out National Science Foundation funding for the social sciences, much of which he characterized as “crap” and the equivalent of a “horse’s backside”:

Some experts, like some research disciplines, are more equal than others, especially in times of fiscal belt-tightening. … My expertise is in medicine and molecular biology, but I can see that many research projects funded by NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate are far less rigorous, essential and relevant to the nation’s needs than those of the organization’s other directorates, which include engineering, geosciences, and mathematical and physical sciences.

Such sniping has a long history, and the Golden Goose moniker is an homage to one particularly demagogic example. Here’s a little history behind the Golden Goose name from our partners at Pacific Standard:

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 soon after that report came out about 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.”

Social Science Space will note subsequent Gooseys passed out this year as they count down to the third annual Golden Goose Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18.

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