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First Golden Goose Awards Given for Seemingly Odd—but High-Impact—Research

Eight scientists, including four Nobel Prize winners, were honored last night with the first annual Golden Goose Awards, celebrating researchers whose seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research yielded discoveries with rich benefits for society.

The awardees were honored at a ceremony on Capitol Hill, where their work was praised by a bipartisan group of members of Congress along with leaders of a range of science and research organizations, including AAAS.

Video highlights of the first annual Golden Goose Awards, where eight scientists were honored at a Capitol Hill ceremony for federally funded research that yielded discoveries with rich benefits for society.

The Golden Goose Award winners are:

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    Charles Townes

    Charles Townes, a physicist whose work in the 1950s led to the invention of laser technology. At the time, his work had no known application, but without it, much of modern technology would be impossible. His discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964.

  • Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy, and the late Jon Weber, whose study of the microstructure of tropical coral in the 1960s led serendipitously to the development of an ideal bone graft material that is used commonly in surgery today. (Roy could not be present for the ceremony.)



    Rodney White and Eugene White

  • Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osamu Shimomura, whose work built on Shimomura’s research on how certain jellyfish glow in the dark. The team’s work led to numerous medical research advances and to methods used widely by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. They won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008. (Shimomura could not be present for the ceremony.)

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U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) spearheaded the development of the new prize, and in a ceremony at the Rayburn House Office Building, he suggested that scientific research is at risk from severe budget pressures and the threat of deep, across-the-board funding cuts under the “sequestration” measure that looms at the start of 2013.


U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee)

Protecting that research, Cooper said, is as natural as protecting women and children when a ship is in danger of sinking. “In an emergency, they’re first,” he said. “When in budgetary emergencies, including sequestration, the same rule should apply… Science is our future. Science is our hope—so let’s support science and give science priority.”

Joining in that support was U.S. Representative Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania). “Obviously science is something that’s near and dear to all of our hearts,” Dent told the winning scientists. “The advances that so many of you have been making are of great significance to our country, and to our way of life—and in many cases to better health.”


U.S. Representative Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania)

U.S. Representatives Jason Altmire (D-Pennsylvania) and Rush Holt, a physicist and New Jersey Democrat, also made brief presentations at the ceremony.

Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science, welcomed the inauguration of the Golden Goose Awards on behalf of the science groups that are sponsoring them. “The unexpected benefits of basic research have been huge, a point well-demonstrated by the work of the first Golden Goose awardees,” he said.

Noting that the announcement of the award had attracted significant news media coverage, including an op-ed in the Washington Post, Leshner said the award has proven to be “a fabulous vehicle” for informing the public, lawmakers, and others “that basic research is good for you… and that we ought to do it.”

Event moderator Frank Sesno, the former CNN Washington bureau chief and now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, described the new award as an answer to the Golden Fleece Awards issued by the late Senator William Proxmire. From 1975 to 1988, the Wisconsin Democrat issued the derisive honor to call attention to what he saw as wasteful and frivolous government spending. Sometimes, Sesno said, the object of Proxmire’s ire was federally funded research. It might’ve sounded funny, he said, but the work was important.

That’s the purpose of the Golden Goose Awards: to demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure or unusual studies that have led to major breakthroughs and have had a significant impact on society. Such breakthroughs may include development of life-saving medicines and treatments; game-changing social and behavioral insights; and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health.


Alan I. Leshner

In a brief discussion at the ceremony, the winning scientists described how their work was guided by curiosity, sudden insights, serendipity, and sometimes stubborn persistence. And, they said, federal funding was critical.

Townes, now 97, worked during World War II on designing radar bombing systems and related technology. After the war, at Columbia University, he was working with the technologies that would in time lead to the development of lasers. But he told the audience, the chairman of his department and the former chairman were skeptical.

“Both of them had won Nobel Prizes, so they weren’t stupid,” he explained. But they were insistent: “‘You’ve got to stop—that’s not going to work. We know it’s not going to work. You know it’s not going to work. You’re wasting the department’s money.’” But Townes had tenure and he did not stop, and within months, his research led to an historic breakthrough.

Tsien acknowledged that the research into “green fluorescent protein” may have sounded odd to some. But the discovery has had an enormous ripple effect. The substance, in laboratory use, “essentially makes it possible for us to see most of the important processes of biochemistry inside living organisms,” he said. “We could now see HIV spreading from one cell to another. There have been applications from many thousands of scientists in tens of thousands of papers in all sorts of areas—infectious disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s… They were invisible, and now we have a chance of being able to cure diseases because we understand these events better.”

The private sector is averse to such high-risk basic research where the outcome is uncertain and the applications are unknown, Tsien explained. Historically, such research has fallen to the federal government—to taxpayers.

“Basic research is the foundation, and we never know when it’s going to come to fruition,” said Chalfie. “So it’s a long-term investment. It’s not a short-term investment. If we curtail funding for the development of the next generation of scientists… if the research stops, it has a negative ripple effect of preventing the breakthroughs in the future.”

The Golden Goose Award was originally Representative Cooper’s idea, and was created and jointly launched by a coalition of organizations which believe that federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security. The award recipients were selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.

Founding Organizations:

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): AAAS is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing science by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson, and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the Science family of journals as well as many scientific newsletters, books, and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.
  • Association of American Universities (AAU): The Association of American Universities is a nonprofit association of 59 leading U.S. public and private nonprofit research universities and two Canadian counterparts. Founded in 1900, AAU today focuses on issues that are important to research-intensive universities, such as funding for research, research policy issues, and graduate and undergraduate education. AAU member universities are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation’s economy, security, and well-being.
  • Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (A?P?L?U): Founded in 1887, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is an association of public research universities, land-grant institutions, and many state public university systems. Its 219 members enroll more than 4.7 million students, award nearly 1 million degrees annually, and conduct nearly two-thirds of all academic research, totaling more than $34 billion annually. As the nation’s oldest higher education association, A?P?L?U is dedicated to excellence in learning, discovery, and engagement.
  • Breakthrough Institute: The Breakthrough Institute is a paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st century. The Institute’s core values are integrity, imagination, and audacity, and its goal is to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.
  • Progressive Policy Institute (PPI): The Progressive Policy Institute is an independent, innovative, and high-impact D.C.-based think tank founded in 1989. As the original “idea mill” for President Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, PPI has a long legacy of promoting break-the-mold ideas aimed at economic growth, national security, and modern, performance-based government. Today, PPI’s unique mix of political realism and policy innovation continues to make it a leading source of pragmatic and creative ideas. PPI is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.
  • Richard Lounsbery Foundation: The Richard Lounsbery Foundation aims to enhance national strengths in science and technology through support of programs in the following areas: science and technology components of key U.S. policy issues; elementary and secondary science and math education; historical studies and contemporary assessments of key trends in the physical and biomedical sciences; and start-up assistance for establishing the infrastructure of research projects.
  • The Science Coalition (TSC): The Science Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of the nation’s leading public and private research universities. It is dedicated to sustaining strong federal funding of basic scientific research as a means to stimulate the economy, spur innovation, and drive America’s global competitiveness.
  • Task Force on American Innovation: The Task Force is a coalition of businesses and business organizations, scientific societies, and higher education associations founded in 2004 to advocate for greater federal investments for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering. The group focuses on the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the Department of Defense research budget, the National Institute of Standards and Technology labs at the Department of Commerce, and NASA.
  • United for Medical Research: United for Medical Research is a coalition of leading research institutions, patient and health advocates, and private industry that have joined together to seek steady increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Other organizations sponsoring the Golden Goose Award include:

  • the Association of American Medical Colleges;
  • the American Chemical Society; and
  • the American Mathematical Society.

Golden Goose Selection Committee Members:

  • Bruce Alberts, professor, University of California, Editor-in-Chief of Science;
  • Wendy Baldwin, president/CEO, Population Reference Bureau;
  • Mel Bernstein, senior vice provost for research and graduate education, Northeastern University;
  • Steven J. Fluharty, senior vice provost for research, University of Pennsylvania;
  • Dennis G. Hall, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School, Vanderbilt University;
  • Sharon L. Hays, vice president, Office of Science & Engineering, CSC; and
  • Leslie Tolbert, senior vice president for research, University of Arizona.

To read the individual stories of the winning researchers and to learn more about the Golden Goose Awards, visit the awards Web site.

[This story is based on a news release from the Golden Goose Award organizers, with additional reporting by Edward W. Lempinen,
senior writer in the AAAS Office of Public Programs.]

14 September 2012


Edward W. Lempinen