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2017 Golden Goose Awards Honor Federally Funded Scientific Breakthroughs

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The Golden Goose Award honors federally funded, often odd-sounding scientific research that yields significant benefits. | AAAS/522 Productions

The field of fuzzy logic may deal with vague or imprecise information, but in the five decades since Lotfi A. Zadeh, the late University of California, Berkeley professor and computer scientist, first published research on the topic, the benefits of fuzzy logic have become crystal-clear.

Fuzzy logic enables computer technology to make more human-like decisions when dealing with ambiguous information, and its applications have advanced a vast range of fields and products. It is used in industrial processes, medical diagnosis, home appliances, economics research, fraud detection and consumer electronics. The systems behind facial recognition, anti-skid braking, weather forecasting and subway controls also are an outgrowth of fuzzy logic.

Zadeh’s work was among three bodies of research honored with a 2017 Golden Goose Award, which recognizes federally funded basic research that has had unexpected and significant societal impact even if the original research sounded obscure. Zadeh’s colleague accepted the award on his behalf at sixth annual Golden Goose Award ceremony on Sept. 27 at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“From helping us build healthier, safer products, to revolutionizing the control systems behind everything from our digital cameras to entire subway systems, to shining a spotlight on the way we humans affect the world around us and helping us save species from extinction, this year’s awardees are wonderful examples of how science works,” said Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “That is what this is about, telling the stories behind scientific breakthroughs.”

Fuzzy logic is derived from sets whose criteria for membership are not precisely defined. Traditional sets are binary – something either belongs to the group or it does not. Yet, fuzzy sets are based on qualities that are not sharply defined, like whether someone is tall. A group of tall people today would certainly include someone who is 7 feet tall, but what about someone who is 6 feet tall? Fuzzy sets account for ambiguity, and fuzzy logic allows us to understand and apply ranges of information to new problems.

In his seminal 1965 article, Zadeh, who passed away on Sept. 6 at the age of 96, offers another example of fuzzy logic.

“The class of animals clearly includes dogs, horses, birds, etc. as its members, and clearly excludes such objects as rocks, fluids, plants, etc.,” he wrote. “However, such objects as starfish, bacteria, etc. have an ambiguous status with respect to the class of animals.”

Zadeh’s research drew the backing of the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Yet, the late Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, who made his name roasting federally funded science, took aim at Zadeh’s work as a candidate for the senator's Golden Fleece award. The citation was intended to ridicule often unusual-sounding scientific research that Proxmire deemed nothing more than wasteful federal spending “fleecing” taxpayers.

As a counterpoint, Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper founded the Golden Goose Award in 2012 to celebrate federally funded research, especially projects that delivered unexpected benefits. In doing so, Cooper joined with AAAS and a coalition of businesses, universities and scientific organizations to create the award to honor the painstaking work of basic science.

The Golden Goose Award has honored innovative research that developed a diabetes medication from Gila monster venom, an algorithm based on marriage stability that led to the development of a program to match kidney patients with donors and the “marshmallow test” – a measure of young children’s self-control that has led to greater understanding of human behavior.

Golden Goose winners 2017
From left, Rep. Paul Tonko, David Culler, Kaichang Li, Joyce Longcore, Allan Pessier, Elaine Lamirande and Don Nichols. | Rachel Couch/A Muse Photography

Federal spending remains the leading source of basic research funding in the United States. Indeed, the House and Senate rejected significant cuts in funding to federal science agencies that President Donald Trump had proposed for fiscal 2018. The House, for instance, called for an increase of 2.6% in basic research funding and fiscal 2018 spending levels of $35.6 billion. Some agencies like the National Institutes of Health won increases in research funding, while other agency research spending accounts remained flat or decreased.

Still, Congress has not finalized the fiscal 2018 spending bills. Instead, in an effort to avert a government showdown, Congress passed and Trump signed into law on Sept. 8 a bill that left final fiscal year 2018 spending levels to be decided in December by keeping the government running at current spending levels until Dec. 8. The bill also extended the nation’s debt limit.

Since its inception, the Golden Goose Awards have drawn support from both parties on Capitol Hill, a point that Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner underscored. “Let’s always make science bipartisan,” he said.

Cooper, a Democrat, cited 18th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt on three stages of scientific development: first, the experts say it isn't true, second, the experts say it's not important, and third, the experts attribute the discovery to the wrong person. “We here in Washington have added a fourth level to that,” he said. “Politicians will try to make fun of the discovery, and that’s a shame. Let’s not set back science. Let’s set science forward and that’s what the Golden Goose does."

The return on investment of Zadeh’s work “is really quite spectacular,” said Shankar Sastry, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley – where Zadeh joined the faculty in 1959 and served as a professor emeritus from 1991.

The influence of Zadeh’s original article on fuzzy sets resonates today, having been cited in 90,000 subsequent scientific articles. Yet his groundbreaking work remains controversial, said David Culler, a Berkeley professor who accepted the award on Zadeh’s behalf.

“He received a lot of criticism. His response was ‘I will take that as a compliment,’” said Culler. “At some level, deep inside that criticism, it showed you had given his work enough respect to think hard about it.”

The second group of 2017 Golden Goose awardees – Joyce Longcore at the University of Maine and Allan Pessier, Don Nichols and Elaine Lamirande, formerly of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park – were recognized for unlocking a mystery to better understand and react to a global epidemic among amphibians.

When more than 30 poison dart frogs in captivity at the National Zoo in Washington died over the course of several months in 1996, the perplexed pathologists sought to identify a mysterious organism on the frogs’ skin. They reached out to Longcore, a leading researcher of a type of fungus called chytrids. Longcore had already discovered several species of chytrids, and she identified another species from the samples the Smithsonian had mailed her: batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

“This seemed to be a new disease of amphibians,” Longcore said.

The frogs at the National Zoo were not the only amphibians affected by chytrids. More than 100 species of frogs, toads, salamanders and newts on several continents have gone extinct since 1980. Scientists now agree that the epidemic is a result of the skin disease chytridiomycosis.

This work, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, has paved the way for efforts to save species from extinction and protect biodiversity. Since then, the zoo has been a partner in the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, which has provided a safe haven for a dozen Panamanian frog species.

“Biodiversity: it’s a big jigsaw puzzle. Lose a piece of the puzzle, the picture’s not whole anymore,” said Lamirande.

The third project to recieve a 2017 Golden Goose Award resulted in the development of a sustainable, soy-based adhesive that has replaced toxic formaldehyde-based adhesives in the production of some plywood and veneer.

Kaichang Li, a chemist at the Oregon State University, was inspired during a walk on the beach with a friend by the ability of mussels to bond tightly to rocks and to each other.

“This is amazing. How can they develop something that can stick to the dirty, wet surface?” Li said. Mindful that mussels produce a protein with a unique amino acid composition, and with a flash of inspiration from the tofu he was eating for lunch, he converted soy protein into a similarly effective adhesive.

Li’s research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has resulted in a water-resistant adhesive known as PureBond, which has gained a foothold in wood manufacturing. More than 60% of all the plywood made in the United States uses a soy-based resin as its bonding agent. Columbia Forest Products, the nation’s largest producer of decorative plywood, entered into a partnership with Li, and the company has swapped out formaldehyde adhesives for the safer PureBond.

The Golden Goose Award has focused a spotlight on an array of basic scientific research that continues to spur innovation and deliver significant benefits to the nation’s economy.

Among award recipients there is no doubt that federal funding was essential. Nichols, who contributed to the amphibian research and served as veterinary medical officer at the National Zoo, said, “Without federal funding, we never would have been able to do any of this.”

“People would say, ‘Why would you look at a dead frog?’” said Allan Pessier, a veterinary pathology resident at the National Zoo at the time of the chytrid breakthrough. Yet without federal funding to support such specialized research, he added, “We wouldn’t have been at the right place at the right time.”

[Associated image: Rachel Crouch/A Muse Photography]