The American Association for the Advancement of Science presented three Golden Goose Awards to scientists whose odd-sounding, basic biomedical research went on to have wide-ranging benefits for patients and society.
Five scientists were recognized for incredible discoveries with humble origins during an annual ceremony at the Library of Congress on Tuesday evening, an honor AAAS has bestowed since 2012.
As Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs” teaches, invaluable resources often emerge from unexpected places. Each year, AAAS and affiliated organizations select the winners of Golden Goose Awards to honor scientists whose seemingly obscure, federally funded research led to advancements with major societal impact. The award committee includes scientific organizations, institutions of higher education, and a bipartisan group of members of Congress.
“This year’s awardees are wonderful examples of how science works and how curiosity, determination and ingenuity can lead to world-changing discoveries,” said Alan Leshner, interim CEO of AAAS, in opening remarks at the ceremony. “These stories are important, because we must ensure that science has the support it needs to advance and serve society.”
While studying blood circulation in the 1950s, the late Dr. Frederik Bang realized that the blood of horseshoe crabs clots when exposed to certain bacteria. Dr. Jack Levin, Bang’s colleague and a hematologist, not only determined the cause of the clotting, but also developed a test — still in use today — that is able to determine the safety of drugs and injections before they are given to patients. On Tuesday, Levin accepted a Golden Goose Award, and Bang’s children, Molly and Axel, accepted one in place of their father.
Dr. Noel Rose and his late mentor, Dr. Ernest Witebsky, now deceased, also received 2019 Golden Goose Awards. In the 1950s, while studying a substance made by thyroid cells under Witebsky’s guidance, Rose discovered that animals have an immune response to their own tissues. It was a concept contrary to the scientific positions of the day. The surprise finding increased understanding of autoimmune disease, opening the door to potential treatments for illnesses such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
A bipartisan group of five congressional supporters of the Golden Goose Awards addressed the 8th annual ceremony, including Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who joined the group this year, and Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, whom the award committee refers to as “Father Goose.”
Cooper came up with the idea for the annual award as a retort to the Golden Fleece Awards, which former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire issued monthly from 1975 to 1988 to target what he considered wasteful federal spending.
“Government-funded research is vital for America’s future and the future of the world,” Cooper said in a statement issued Thursday morning. “Taxpayers have received untold benefits from breakthroughs that have lengthened and enriched our lives.”
Dr. David Sachar, this year’s solo Golden Goose recipient, began his award-winning research in 1963, when cholera was killing millions each year. He went on to disprove the prevailing theory about cholera and with that advanced treatments for the life-threatening diarrhea it causes. The discovery led to oral rehydration therapy that could easily be administered in rural villages across the world, saving tens of millions of lives.
“It would not have been done unless Sachar had reawakened the flame,” said Dr. David Nalin, one of Sachar’s colleagues who later developed oral rehydration therapy, in a video documentary that was played during the ceremony. “The mythology is that there’s a eureka moment, the breakthrough comes, and right away we have insulin to cure diabetes. That’s not the way it happens. It isn’t always a logical step from A to B to C.”
“I think the lesson here for policymakers,” Sachar added in the video, “is that just trying to understand fundamental mysteries of nature will ultimately translate into important applications.”