Golden Goose: Where offbeat science is good science

Science is serious stuff, but sometimes it sounds a little weird.  That makes research easy to ridicule, especially when taxpayer dollars fund it.  But is the criticism justified?  We don’t think so.  Quirky-sounding science often produces extraordinary results, and it is in our nation’s interest to support it.

For instance, in the early 1960s, Osamu Shimomura and Frank Johnson gathered thousands of jellyfish off the San Juan Islands, just to explore their green glow.  While that doesn’t sound very useful, the scientists isolated a luminescent protein. Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien expanded on that breakthrough, allowing researchers to track multiple proteins and biological processes all at once.

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The result?  What appeared to be obscure research (much of which was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation) led to the development of a fundamental tool used by researchers all over the world.  Just recently, this tool was critical to research on new treatments for heart disease – something that touches hundreds of thousands of Americans and their families. 

Dr. Chalfie joined us in Chicago for a symposium Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  The subject was the Golden Goose Award – a funny-sounding honor with a serious goal.  The Golden Goose Award was created in 2012 by academic, business and science organizations to recognize federally funded research just like the story above.  This research often leads to major breakthroughs with little or no connection to the original research, illustrating the unpredictable paths science takes in advancing society.

Government should enact policies and highlight areas where waste and duplication can be eliminated.  Too often, however, these criticisms have targeted science that sounds offbeat, while ignoring unexpected long-term benefits.

The Golden Goose Award was devised as a counter to the Golden Fleece Award, which was created by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) to highlight government waste.  Instead, this award honors groundbreaking research.  We are very pleased that the science, research, and business organizations that created this award found common cause in rewarding great work.

Drs. Shimomura, Chalfie, and Tsien were among the inaugural winners of the Golden Goose Award in 2012.  (Dr. Johnson passed away in 1990.)  Other winners have included:

  • the inventor of the maser, which was developed into the laser, an invention that seemed to have no purpose at the time but whose uses now are virtually endless;
  • the pioneers of bone grafting material, which stemmed from research about the structure of tropical coral;
  • the social scientists who developed an algorithm for maximizing the number of happy marriages in an imaginary group of people, leading to the national kidney exchange program and similar solutions for societal problems that lack obvious market responses;
  • the researchers behind Thermus aquaticus, whose interest in Yellowstone-based bacteria helped launch the field of biotechnology and the ongoing genomics revolution; and
  • the creator of a diabetes medication that resulted from the poisonous venom of the Gila monster.

Saturday we discussed why it’s important for the federal government to sustain its investments in scientific research across all disciplines, even if the benefits aren’t immediately clear.  We also announced the winner of the first Golden Goose Award of 2014: Dr. Larry Smarr.

Dr. Smarr forged a pathway from studying black holes to a tool that is essential to our everyday lives.  As a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1980s, Dr. Smarr conducted NSF-funded gravitational physics research focused on black holes in space.  Realizing that he and fellow researchers needed far greater computational power, he persuaded NSF to create the first national supercomputing centers.  As director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, at Illinois, Dr. Smarr encouraged community software development.  This led to Mosaic, the world’s first Web browser, whose descendants included Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, portals that have transformed our lives, our economy, and the way we communicate. 

 

Here was another example of how federally funded science benefits humankind in unexpected ways.

 

Members of Congress are watchdogs for the American taxpayer. Exposing waste rightfully wins headlines, but successful investment deserves equal recognition. The Golden Goose Award is a perfect example for our Capitol Hill colleagues.

 

Congress can only make informed decisions for the scientific community if they know what’s happening in research – good and bad. We hope this award brings awareness to Members, but it also must serve as a catalyst for scientists to better communicate with Congress.

 

The Golden Goose Award reminds us that federally supported scientific research is the goose that lays golden egg after golden egg.  We will do our best to ensure that Congress does not take that for granted.