The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) joined a bipartisan team of U.S. lawmakers and a broad-based coalition of science, business and education leaders in announcing a new award program that will celebrate the value of basic scientific research.
Amid intense budgetary pressures, the Golden Goose Award will underscore the human and economic benefits of federally funded basic science, U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) said 25 April on Capitol Hill.
In particular, the new award will honor federally funded researchers whose work may initially seem obscure or odd, yet contributes to discoveries that serve society in profound ways. Cooper’s office said such projects might encompass, for example, life-saving medical treatments, social and behavioral insights, security-related technological advances, or breakthroughs associated with energy, the environment, communications, public health, and other areas. Organizers expect to issue the award annually, beginning this fall.
Named after the fable about the goose that laid a golden egg, the new award also is intended to help counter efforts to mock basic research, or to mischaracterize funny-sounding projects as wasteful. Ever since the days of the Golden Fleece Awards, spearheaded by the late Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), some policymakers have delighted in turning quirky or unusual research titles into a punch line, Cooper noted.
“We need to be encouraging our young people to think positively about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM),” Cooper said following the program announcement. “We don’t know how many young Einsteins or Newtons didn’t pursue science because they thought it was a joke.”
Representatives Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) and Robert J. Dold (R-Illinois) also emphasized the value of basic scientific research for promoting job growth, innovation and medical breakthroughs.
“Federally funded research has led to the advent of the Internet, magnetic resonance imaging, and global positioning systems,” Dent said. Many important scientific advances “may seem at times to be curious,” he added. But supporting basic research and STEM education is critical at a time when “600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled because people don’t have the skills to fill them,” Dent said.
Investments in science represent investments in a healthy economy, Dold added. “We must continue to invest in this field and similar fields so that more people have the resources they need to find a job,” he said in a news release.
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, said: “The unexpected benefits of basic research have been huge.” He noted that federal investments in basic science have fueled as much as half of U.S. economic growth since World War II, resulting in advances across the fields of technology, health, national security, energy, and other fields.
Long-term federal investment in basic science is essential, Cooper said, because many game-changing advances happen serendipitously, and “a single breakthrough can counter a thousand failures.” After all, he added, no one could have foreseen that silicon—sand, basically—would revolutionize the global economy. Similarly, the accidental development of partially sticky glue supported an array of successful products such as note paper that temporarily adheres to surfaces. Studies of sick cows and spoiled hay ultimately resulted in an array of life-saving anticoagulants.
Although industry supports the largest percentage of overall research and development in the United States, Leshner said, basic science—“the seed corn of innovation”—is mostly supported by the federal government.
That support is currently at risk, as AAAS has previously reported. The proposed U.S. House of Representatives 2013 budget, though unlikely to be approved by the Senate, sets a baseline for deep cuts to federal research and development spending for non-defense areas, AAAS analysis shows. Additional, across-the-board cuts, which would take effect in January 2013 as part of a “sequestration” if policymakers fail to agree on alternative budget-control strategies, could reduce total federal R&D by up to 12% compared to current-year funding levels as well as President Barack Obama’s requested 2013 budget.
“We’re under intense budgetary pressure, but scientific research should not be subject to disproportionate cuts,” Cooper said. “Few things are as important as scientific research to building a better future.”
He applauded his Republican colleagues for joining him in a bipartisan celebration of basic scientific research. “We short-change ourselves if we don’t emphasize the positive,” Cooper said. “Science has made America great.”
In addition to Cooper, Dent and Dold, other members of Congress who are supporting the new award include Representatives Jason Altmire (D-Pennsylvania), Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) and Paul Tonko (D-New York).
The Golden Goose Award initiative was backed by AAAS, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Breakthrough Institute, the Progressive Policy Institute, The Science Coalition, and the Task Force on American Innovation.
The group offered the following examples of scientific advances that may have sounded odd at first:
- While researching the flu in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming found that mold had accidentally contaminated one of his flu cultures, and that bacteria did not grow near it. After many tests, he realized he had discovered a non-toxic antibiotic substance able to kill many of the bacteria that cause infections in humans and other animals. His obscure-sounding research, originally entitled “Anti-Bacterial Substance in Filtrates of Broth,” marked the advent of penicillin, the first true antibiotic.
- In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was the first person to observe x-rays. While testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass, he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen. He named the rays that caused the glow “x-rays” because of their unknown nature. His discovery was widely deemed a medical miracle, allowing doctors to see inside the human body without surgery.
- Research projects on the excretion of urine in dogs and the excretion of insulin by dogfish ultimately led to vital information on the function of the human kidney and the relationship of hormones to kidney function. The research widened understanding of diabetes and earned the researcher the National Medal of Science.
- A study, entitled “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig,” led to a new treatment for early hearing loss in infants.
- A U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research project on the sex life of the screwworm was ridiculed by Proxmire, receiving one of his Golden Fleece Awards. But Proxmire was forced to apologize to the researchers after it became clear that understanding the mating habits of the screwworm, a deadly pest to cattle, would be essential to its control. The original project cost $250,000 but saved the U.S. cattle industry more than $20 billion, the Golden Goose coalition reported.
A formal kickoff for the new award initiative is planned for Thursday 13 September. Meanwhile, nominations can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. All nominations will undergo peer review by a selection committee with expertise spanning all areas of science and technology. Reviewers will include, for example, Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, among others.