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Erin Heath: How the ‘Golden Goose’ was Hatched

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Erin Heath

Some things are easy to ridicule at first.

Who would ask taxpayers for money to spend on massaging rats? Or peering into the sex lives of bugs? Or how mussels stick to rocks?

Yet those studies led to breakthroughs in how we save the lives of premature infants, beat back farm pests and make plywood more environmentally friendly. And they have another thing in common: The researchers behind those discoveries are all winners of the Golden Goose Award, which recognizes scientists whose obscure-sounding, federally financed studies have led to significant and sometimes surprising findings.

AAAS is one of the backers of the awards, first handed out in 2012. The event has grown over the years, with about 500 people turning out for the presentation in 2017.

This year’s awards are scheduled to be handed out Sept. 13 at a ceremony at the Library of Congress. And one of the key people behind the show is Erin Heath, who co-chairs the award’s steering committee. A former journalist, Heath joined the AAAS Office of Government Relations in 2006. She’s the office’s associate director, and she’s heavily involved in efforts to get members engaged with policymakers and the public. Here, she talks a bit about the history behind the award and what’s involved in picking the winners.

How did the Golden Goose come to be?

The idea was hatched – yes, I said that – by Congressman Jim Cooper, of Tennessee. It was somewhat inspired by the Golden Fleece Awards, given out by Sen. William Proxmire in the 1970s and 1980s. Those awards were meant to highlight what he considered to be wasteful government spending. Sometimes those awards would go to scientific research, among other things.

Jim Cooper wanted to turn this narrative on its head and tell the stories of the unexpected benefits of science. And in 2012, a handful of organizations, including AAAS, got together and made that happen. We awarded three teams of researchers that first year, and have done so ever since.

What’s the response been to the awards, both among the scientific community and policymakers?

We’re grateful to have the support of a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives and senators, including Congressman Cooper. Each year, they speak at the ceremony about the importance of federally funded research. The ceremony is a chance for government leaders and members of the scientific community to get together and celebrate scientific success stories.

We now have a collection of inspiring stories about the unexpected benefits of science and the sometimes-serendipitous nature of science.  Sometimes these stories highlight Nobel Prize winners or famous scientists, but just as often they highlight researchers whose stories haven’t yet been widely told. Those are the really gratifying stories for me.

Proxmire has been gone a long time, but you still hear similar rhetoric today. What can AAAS members do to counter it?

One thing we would love for AAAS members to do is to submit a nomination for the Golden Goose Award. We accept nominations year-round on our website. It’s very easy to do.

We want to hear these stories. There are more stories out there. And we’d like to hear these stories from all fields of science.

Tell me a little bit about how the winners are selected.

Early each calendar year, the crop of nominations we’ve gotten the previous year are evaluated by a selection committee made up of scientists, university leaders, science communicators and science policy professionals. They look for three things. First, the research has to have been funded by the federal government. It has to have had a demonstrated impact on society. And it has to have what we call that “goosey” nature, which is to say it may have sounded odd or obscure to start or feature some element of serendipity..

Do former winners play any role?

We continue to stay in touch with them; some previous award winners have been able to join us at subsequent award ceremonies or work with us on media outreach. Another thing we’ve done in the last few years is bring teams of researchers to the AAAS annual meeting for a session that tells their story, that talks about their research.

How does the award fit in with the AAAS mission?

This is a great way for AAAS and its partners to share the stories of the science and illustrate the value of investing in scientific research.

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Matt Smith