Are you old enough to remember the heyday of the late Senator William Proxmire “Golden Fleece awards” given to so called “wasteful” science in the US system? Well, luckily my science policy soulmate, Paul Dufour, claims that he is, and he has written us to share some heartening news. “An alliance that includes members of Congress and science and university groups wants to turn Proxmire’s gimmick on its head. Today, they announced plans to award a new “Golden Goose Award” to research projects that might sound funny, but have produced serious health or economic benefits.” Paul also suggests that we consider a similar award in Canada. What a great idea, though I don’t agree with the name he is suggesting. A “Midas touch prize?” Nah!
One doesn’t need to go all the way back to Proxmire’s days to witness politicians’ search for “funny sounding” research proposals to identify “wasteful” science. Back in 1995 Reform party MP Randy White, was on a mission to illustrate waste in government by trying to discredit what is now called NSERC’s discovery grant program. His staff dug up two funded proposals: one about “Lie Theory and its applications”, and the other about the “behaviour of hummingbirds”.
The staff had assumed that the first grant was about devising a theory of “lying”, not knowing that it was in fact concerned with one of the deepest mathematical theories developed by the distinguished Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie (1844-1899). I will let you guess how “humming birds” rang the alarm bells in White’s office.
I did then write a letter about it to the Vancouver Sun, which had related the story under the title, “$32,000 hummingbird study for the birds, MP fumes”. My statistician/colleague John Petkau also wrote about the “spin-offs in quite unexpected directions” of the research program regarding hummingbirds.
In more recent times, the House republicans under the leadership of Eric Cantor launched an Internet site “YouCut”, where citizens could identify potential targets for government cuts. An NSF funded research proposal to analyse “on-field contributions of soccer players”, and another to model “the sound of breaking objects,” were given as examples of “questionable projects”.
The legislators eventually relented when they were reminded that the first research was trying to evaluate and quantify team performances in general, having chosen soccer teamwork because it is among the hardest to rank using regular statistical methods. Even more embarrassing was the fact that the second project was greatly benefiting the movie and video game industry, a “nearly one-hundred billion dollar industry,” including hugely influential companies like Pixar.
The organizations sponsoring the Golden Goose Award hope to award it annually starting this fall. Nominations will be reviewed by an eight-member selection committee that includes Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter as well as university research officials. Nominations for the Golden Goose Award can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to Paul’s tremendous idea to have a similar competition/award in Canada, I believe the prize would surely help remind people up here that even seemingly offbeat studies can produce unexpected results. I say so well aware that those pesky mathematicians will surely do well in such a contest, being the least understood of all species of researchers.
And by the way, I just learned today that one of my “purest” papers has been used by US and French economists to study the stability of “the roommate problem”. Don’t ask me how, but the paper mentions that their models “include marriage markets incorporating single-sex households, tickets in US presidential elections, team jobs such as pilot/copilot, team sports and many others.” Do I qualify then?
Addendum: I have just realized that Today’s Washington Post has an article featuring Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the congressman who hatched the “Golden Goose Award”. Entitled, “Why ‘the sex life of the screwworm’ deserves taxpayer dollars”, the op-ed is a must-read by everyone … in Ottawa!