We Should Be Happy Federal Tax Dollars Funded Rat Massage

Baby rat in hand
Trying to figure out why baby lab rats weren’t thriving, Gary Evoniuk picked up a camera lens brush and, mimicking the mother’s licking pattern, stroked the rats’ tiny backs. (Photo: madaise/Flickr)

The focus of the Golden Goose Award is to identify federally funded but silly-sounding science that ultimately results in serious benefits for humankind. So it is that the latest, and last for 2014, winners of the Golden Goose are being honored for massaging rat pups — and for the therapy for premature babies that their work inspired.

Those four researchers involved will join four other Golden Goose awardees announced earlier this year in a September 18 ceremony at the Library of Congress marking the award program’s third year. Award recipients are selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.

“Researchers massaging rats: Sounds strange, right?” said Jim Cooper, a U.S. congressman from Tennessee who first proposed creation of the Golden Goose Award. “But infant massage has given premature babies a better start. Off-the-wall science saves lives.”

In 1979 – and thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health — Saul Schanberg, a Duke University neuroscientist, Cynthia Kuhn, a graduate student, and Gary Evoniuk, a lab technician, were working with rat pups to study factors influencing two key growth markers. They needed to separate the pups from their mothers. However, they quickly found that the pups, though being fed and kept warm, failed to thrive and levels of those growth markers declined.

Investigating further the trio ruled out nutrition, body temperature and maternal pheromones, then homed in on the observation that rat mothers spend a great deal of time grooming and vigorously licking their pups. So the researchers simulated the mother’s tongue with a small brush, and after stroking the rat pups their markers increased and their lives improved.

Tiffany Field
Tiffany Field

Meanwhile, psychologist Tiffany Martini Field at the University of Miami Medical School was researching ways to help premature infants survive and thrive and – using money from the National Institute of Mental Health (part of NIH) –she leveraged Schanberg’s groundbreaking work in her human-based investigations. It did. Premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others left alone in their incubators (then standard practice), were more alert and responsive, and were released from the hospital an average of six days sooner than the premature babies who were not massaged.

Today, Field serves as the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School; Kuhn is a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine and Evoniuk is the director of publication practices at GlaxoSmithKline. Schanberg served on the faculty at Duke University for more than 40 years until his death in 2009; his granddaughter will accept the award in his honor.

The previously announced awardees are Larry Smarr, whose basic research on colliding black holes in space led to the development of U.S. supercomputing capabilities and the creation of the first Internet browsers, and Robert Wilson, Paul Milgrom and R. Preston McAfee, whose basic research on game theory and auctions led to the first auctioning of the spectrum by the Federal Communications Commission and the subsequent rapid advance of the global telecommunications industry. (Read their full story here.)

Congressman Cooper first proposed the Golden Goose Award when the late Senator William Proxmire was issuing the Golden Fleece Award to target wasteful federal spending, an ‘honor’ that often targeted peer-reviewed science because it sounded odd. Cooper wanted an anti-Golden Fleece award to counter the often false impression that odd-sounding research was not useful. While the late Proxmire stopped giving out his award in 1987, the proclivity of politicians to take potshots at research they themselves haven’t properly researched continued, and so in 2012, a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations created the Golden Goose Award. (This year SAGE, the sponsor of Social Science Space, joined the list of sponsors.)

As a release from the Golden Goose Award explains, “Like the bipartisan group of members of Congress who support the Golden Goose Award, the founding organizations believe that federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security.” And in the case, brushing baby rats has had a “momentous” benefit. . One out of eight infants in the United States is born prematurely, and a recent analysis estimates that savings from infant massage amount to about $10,000 per infant, resulting in an annual health care savings of $4.7 billion in the U.S. alone.

“Federally funded science frequently results in unexpected benefits to mankind, and the work of these four researchers is no different,” said Randy Hultgren, and Illinois Republican serving on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “Offbeat scientific research—even massaging rats—can lead to key discoveries in our understanding of human development and improve the lives of many. These results are often unintended and were not explicitly factored into the original grant. I applaud yet another Golden Goose breakthrough.”


Portions of this article were drawn from a press release from the Golden Goose Award.

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