Sometimes the greatest scientific discoveries come from research that seems simplistic, esoteric or flat-out bizarre. The weirder the better for the organizers of the Golden Goose Awards. Sponsored by a number of leading scientific societies, the awards were launched last year to celebrate the importance of federally funded basic research projects that may sound quirky but sometimes deliver tremendous payoffs.
“When you call somebody and tell them you'd like to present them with a Golden Goose Award, their first question is often, Is this a joke? Who is this, really?” says Barry Toiv, one of the organizers and vice president of public affairs for the Association of American Universities. “Once you explain it, they get it, and our recipients have all seemed to deeply appreciate the recognition.”
This year's awardees included Thomas Brock, who in the 1960s used a National Science Foundation grant to discover a heat-loving bacterium called Thermus aquaticus in a hydrothermal pool at Yellowstone National Park. An enzyme extracted from that microbe is now a key part of the polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies small samples of DNA for study—and which powers a multibillion-dollar industry of genetic analysis. “I was doing basic research on organisms at high temperatures and focusing on evolution and ecology,” Brock says. “I wasn't even thinking about industrial uses.”
Another honoree, John Eng, found in 1992 that the poisonous saliva of the Gila monster lizard could stimulate insulin production, which led to the development of the diabetes drug exenatide. “A lot of research doesn't end in major discoveries,” says Eng, who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs at the time. “But it might, and I don't think anyone can predict which will.”
The Golden Goose Awards were inspired by the Golden Fleece award, which the late Wisconsin senator William Proxmire dished out in the 1970s and 1980s to bring attention to what he viewed as wasteful government spending. Instead Proxmire often targeted valuable research.
Proxmire once mocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for investing $250,000 to explore the sex life of the screwworm. But the federal investment paid off handsomely. The study of the livestock parasite showed that female screwworms mate only once, whereas males mate many times. By creating a host of sterile male worms and releasing them in the wild, usda scientists eradicated the pest, saving the livestock industry billions of dollars. Ultimately even Proxmire came around to acknowledging the importance of the research.
Nowadays, as federal budgets constrict, funding for basic research is in the crosshairs once again. With the Golden Goose Awards, Toiv and his colleagues aim to remind policy makers that even worm voyeurism can yield innovations that the country needs.