Golden Goose Award Recipients Prove the Value of Basic Science

The Golden Goose Award recognizes the people and the stories behind unexpected scientific breakthroughs. | AAAS/522 Productions

Five scientists were honored Thursday evening with Golden Goose Awards in recognition of their longstanding work advancing the fields of immunology and social psychology in a ceremony at the Library of Congress, the United States’ oldest federal cultural institution.

Each year a committee headed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, other scientific organizations and institutions of higher education present Golden Goose Awards to scientists to commend their seemingly obscure, federally funded research that has led to major scientific breakthroughs with significant societal impact. The award is also supported by a bipartisan group of members of Congress.

“From helping us to better understand our own brains, to revolutionizing our understanding of the immune system, to illuminating how cells communicate, this year’s awardees are wonderful examples of how science works,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. AAAS brought the award program under its stewardship in 2017.

“I can tell you from my 16 years in Congress that this effort to tell these stories is important and influential because policymakers, like all of us, value stories and because we must ensure that science has the support it needs to advance and serve society,” added Holt in opening remarks.

Stanley Cohen, one of this year’s awardees, began his research career in experimental pathology at a time when the field was just getting off the ground. Scientists had only recently discovered that the immune system involved more than the production of antibodies.

In the early 1970s, while growing a virus in fertilized chicken eggs for an experiment, Cohen realized that, even without an immune system, the eggs were unexpectedly producing proteins that were previously thought to be exclusive to the immune system. Upon further investigation, he discovered many different kinds of cells could make these proteins and that they influenced the behavior of other cells. The discovery led to the concept of cytokines, a completely new way of thinking about general physiology, and thus new ways to treat abnormal cell growth inherent in cancers and other diseases.

“Discovery is like a tree,” said Cohen in a short video documentary that was played during the ceremony.  “New things keep popping up along the way, and they create branches, and then you have to explore the branches. And, every once in a while, you’ll find a branch with a lot of nice fruit, but you don’t know in advance which branch it is. It’s those new, unexpected discoveries that actually lead to big, useful findings.”

Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald, and Brian Nosek, social psychologists who built the first scientific measures of implicit bias, also were award recipients. Nosek developed a web-based tool in 1998, which has expanded the study of implicit bias and its impact.

Bruce Glick was honored posthumously for his discovery of the purpose of the bursa of Fabricius gland in the posterior of geese. Like Cohen’s work, Glick’s has led to improved, more targeted cancer treatments.

Four of the Golden Goose Award’s congressional supporters participated in the 7th annual ceremony, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who joined the group this year, and Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, who the award committee affectionately refers to as “Father Goose.” Cooper came up with the idea for the annual award as a counterpoint to former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire’s annual Golden Fleece Awards that were issued monthly from 1975 to 1988 to target what he considered wasteful federal spending.

“Who knew that studying geese, eggs and bias could improve cancer treatment and the understanding of how we think?” Cooper said in a statement issued Thursday morning. “That’s what this year’s winners have done: transform the ordinary into the miraculous. This is science at its best, and the government must invest in it.”

[Associated image: Adam Cohen/AAAS]