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Awards Demonstrate Power of Curiosity, Serendipity, and Funding in Research

Seven researchers whose shared curiosity about basic scientific questions led to findings with big benefits for society were honored recently with Golden Goose Awards.

Their three projects, which have generated social, commercial, and medical applications, were all supported by federal research grants. Supporters at the 17 September awards ceremony held in the Library of Congress cited them as an example of why federal funding for basic research is essential.


Jim Cooper | Rachel Couch for Golden Goose Award

"These awards remind us that scientific breakthrough rarely follows the straight and narrow path," said Rep. Chris Coons (D-Del.), and "how important it is that we continue to support the basic research that only the federal government can sustainably fund." Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), Bob Dold (R-Ill.), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) also said they support increasing federal research funding to spur more discoveries.

Having bipartisan support for increased research funding would be a welcome development, said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), one of the founders of the Golden Goose Award, following the ceremony. "We've had a small improvement this year," Cooper said, "but we have to do much more to bring research funding to where it should be."

While federal funding for research and development (R&D) did receive a small boost of about $900 million in fiscal year 2015, for a total of $137.4 billion, that was just a bump on a downward slope. By 2014, U.S. federal R&D spending had dropped by $24 billion since 2010 (adjusted for inflation), according to Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS. The president's 2016 budget request for a 6.5% increase to boost defense, education, and health spending would reverse that trend, but Congress has not yet agreed on a final budget.

Cooper and a coalition of organizations, including AAAS and the Association of American Universities, created the Golden Goose award in 2012 as a response to the "Golden Fleece" awards created by the late Sen. William Proxmire in 1975. Proxmire had used his award to call attention to and often ridicule odd-sounding research that he regarded as an example of wasteful spending by the National Science Foundation and other federal research funders.

The 2015 Golden Goose Awardees are Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and Philip Peake, recognized for the "marshmallow test" to study the mental mechanisms that enable self-control in children, and how those skills affect their lives as they mature; Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, whose reseach on ocular dominance columns led to the discovery that mammalian brains have specific neurons programmed to identify horizontal and vertical lines; and Joel E. Cohen and Christopher Small for hypsographic demography. Three of the winners — Cohen, Wiesel, and Hubel — are AAAS Honorary Fellows

"It takes long-term investments to get results. There's a long ramp before take-off."

Joel Cohen, 2015 Golden Goose Awardee

Joel Cohen | Rachel Couch for Golden Goose Award

For their first collaborative project, Small, a geophysicist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Cohen, a population biologist at Rockefeller University, focused on determining how many people live at every elevation above (and below) sea level. Their novel splicing of maps of human populations irrespective of political boundaries with topography and altitudes led to the 1998 finding that more than a third of the world's population lives within 300 feet of sea level, where there may be a greater risk of flooding and natural disasters. Even more surprising was that most of those people live in less-populated areas rather than cities — a finding that has implications for disaster response strategies.

That new method, called hypsographic demography, has since been used in a wide variety of research and applications, including by a snack manufacturer whose packages must be able to withstand the change in air pressure from low to high altitudes; a soap manufacturer whose suds bubble more at higher altitudes; and even cancer researchers who study a rare inherited tumor that is more common in people who live at high altitudes.

As part of the awards ceremony, Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs interviewed the Golden Goose recipients, and asked for their advice to lawmakers and young scientists.

Cohen and Small's research had been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which itself is funded primarily by the NSF. In response to a question about the importance of federal research funding, Cohen said that, in fact, he had been benefiting from NSF funding since he was 16, when he attended a summer math camp. There he had roommates studying biology who were having so much fun that he decided to pursue mathematical biology. His doctoral degree and initial research as a young professor were also supported by NSF funding, he said.

Educating and training successful researchers like the ones sharing the stage with him requires financial support, he said. "It takes long-term investments to get results," Cohen told the audience. "There's a long ramp before take-off."

Scientists also need to communicate better about their research so that funders and the public can understand what they are working on and why it's important, said Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. Mischel wrote The Marshmallow Test, a book about his research 50 years after creating the experiment, in part because he found his research had been widely misunderstood, he said.

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The Golden Goose Awards 2015 from AAU on Vimeo.

Mischel and his colleagues asked preschoolers to sit in front of a treat (often a marshmallow) that they could either eat immediately, or wait alone for up to 20 minutes without eating it to get rewarded with two treats. Those who employed self-control techniques, such as distracting themselves so they didn't look at the treat, were later found to have better academic outcomes, career success, and even physical fitness. However, the researchers also found that self-control is not a fixed trait, Mischel said. Rather, it relies on strategies that can be learned and should be taught in schools.

Scientists have a responsibility to "convey, in words people can understand, what we're doing, why it's important, why it's exciting," and the difference it can make it people's lives, Mischel said.

A fortuitous mistake led to one of Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel's most important discoveries. Wiesel and Hubel, who is now deceased, were both neurophysiologists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine when they began trying to figure out how a cat's brain responds to visual stimuli. They were getting no responses from cortical cells when they flashed a small dot on a screen, but when they accidentally pushed the slide too far and showed a line instead, the cat's cortical brain cells fired excitedly.

That error led to the discovery that some neurons in the brains of cats and primates are programmed to respond only to either vertical lines, horizontal lines, or those at intermediate orientations. In 20 years of collaboration, Hubel and Wiesel also explored the development of the visual system and its plasticity in early life, which has influenced the treatment for children born with cataracts and the creation of artificial "machine vision."

After their initial breakthrough, "we felt we were explorers rather than scientists," Wiesel said. "There's nothing as satisfying as discovery."