PHILADELPHIA -- Steve Fluharty, the University of Pennsylvania’s senior vice provost for research, is participating in a new congressional program that will highlight federally funded science projects. Called the “Golden Goose Awards,” not just any projects will do; the program exists to draw attention to the sometimes-serendipitous nature of scientific progress. The value of many avenues of research is not always obvious at first blush.
“We’re facing unprecedented pressures on government spending and federal funding for research is definitely under intense scrutiny,” Fluharty said. “These types of programs can do a lot to convince the lay public how important — and how unpredictable — investments in science can be in regards to payoff,”
In times of economic trouble, funding for scientific research is an easy target for politicians. By nature, its methods can be arcane, and its potential uses obscure. Those uncovering the mysteries of the universe may literally have their heads in the clouds while more practical concerns are occupying voters back on Earth.
The late Democratic U.S. Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin famously embodied this stance with his monthly “golden fleece" awards, which lampooned what he felt was wasteful government spending. Scientific research was a common target. And though Proxmire retired in 1989, legislators such as Oklahoma’s Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and advocacy groups, such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, have taken up his mantle.
The brainchild of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, the Golden Goose Awards aim to highlight scientific research that has provided a lasting benefit or economic return, despite unglamorous or perhaps even silly-sounding subject matter. The name was chosen to skewer Proxmire’s assertion that these science projects are a waste of money; on the contrary, killing these golden geese would be a waste of an invaluable investment.
As a member of the selection committee, Fluharty will help sort through nominees provided by scholarly societies and university associations, looking for the scientific projects that best exemplify unexpected scientific boons. By showing off big projects’ often-humble beginnings, the organizers hope to convince politicians and the public not to judge basic research rashly.
Fluharty, who received his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees at Penn, has had a personal stake in fighting this misunderstanding.
“When Proxmire was in his heyday, the lab I was working in for my Ph.D. was considered to be in his firing line,” Fluharty said. “We were studying the hormonal controls of salt consumption in a rat model.”
Animal studies are particularly ripe targets for mockery; Proxmire awarded a Golden Fleece to researchers studying the “sex life of the screwworm,” while Coburn hung his 2011 attack on National Science Foundation funding on a project that put “shrimp on a treadmill.” Yet that screwworm research eventually represented a billion-dollar savings to cattle farmers, while the shrimp research — which analyses how the crustaceans respond to stress, disease and pollution — could have a similar return on investment to the aquaculture industry.
Fluharty’s doctoral research followed that trend and underscores the need to instill a greater understanding of the long, winding road scientific progress often takes.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Why do we care about salt preferences in rats?’ But the reality is that the hormonal mechanisms that were identified are now some of the key components of many of the hypertension drugs that, with a low-sodium diet, are used for controlling blood pressure today,” Fluharty said.
The first class of three to six Golden Goose awardees will be announced in September, with new awards continuing regularly afterwards.