Congressman's 'Golden Goose' Aims to Stand Proxmire's Award on Its Head

The Golden Goose Award is the brainchild of Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
April 25, 2012

For decades, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee fumed as a fellow Democrat, Sen. William Proxmire, grabbed headlines with his high-profile "Golden Fleece Award." Mr. Proxmire, who left the Senate in 1989 and died in 2005, often mocked scientists whose federally financed projects could sound silly and wasteful if sarcastically parodied.

Mr. Cooper pleaded with universities to fight back with their own award to celebrate the widespread societal benefits of research. But, he said Tuesday, his entreaties went nowhere. "There was an awkwardness because there's a lot of hierarchy in higher ed and a lot of fractiousness," he said. "There's a lot of jealousy among institutions and different branches of science."

Now, at long last, Mr. Cooper's idea is going to get its flight test: He and several leading university and advocacy groups will unveil today a "Golden Goose Award" to honor research that turns out to have been an especially productive use of federal money.

"This is a small, but hopefully important, effort to fight back, and to promote science," Mr. Cooper said in an interview.

In addition to winning the cooperation of groups such as the Association of American Universities and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mr. Cooper is working with that rarest of Congressional phenomena, a genuinely bipartisan alliance. Three centrist Republicans—Reps. Brian Bilbray of California, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, and Robert Dold of Illinois—agreed to join him at today's announcement.

In this Congress, that stands as a major breakthrough, said Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Congress is so separated by party that basically anything that can get one Republican and one Democrat on the same side, I think is massively newsworthy," she said.

And researchers say they need all the help they can get. Although scientific research isn't the first thing that either Democrats or Republicans traditionally try to slash, the reductions demanded in recent years, largely by Republicans, mean that nothing is safe from severe budget cuts.

Since 2003, Congress has sliced the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the leading supplier of federal money for basic research at American universities, by about 20 percent relative to inflation. And if a set of automatic budget cuts approved by Congress takes effect in January 2013, the NIH will lose nearly 8 percent more from its $31-billion budget.

The new "Golden Goose Award" will be bestowed annually and will focus attention on research that, years or even decades later, proves to have been particularly useful and cost-effective, the AAU and other sponsors said in their announcement.

The name was specifically chosen as a counterpoint to the Golden Fleece Award, created in 1975 by Senator Proxmire, a Democrat of Wisconsin, to mock wasteful spending of tax dollars. Mr. Proxmire often included science projects among his awardees, faulting the NIH for supporting a study of brothels, the National Science Foundation for a study of love, and NASA for a search for extraterrestrial civilizations.

Organizers of the Golden Goose Award haven't resolved all details of their plan, said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the AAU, which represents 61 prominent research universities. But they expect an annual ceremony, beginning this September, that involves several winners from various fields of science.

The winning research could be just a few years old, or it could date back several decades, with the main condition being that the scientist or a surviving family member is available to comment on the value of the work to society, Mr. Toiv said. Winners won't get a cash award, but they will receive some type of recognition yet to be determined, he said.

The Politics of Ridiculing Research

Political experts see value to the idea of a Golden Goose Award, even if they doubt it will ever command the type of wide public attention that Mr. Proxmire garnered. "In most cases, bad news is news, and good news isn't," said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "That's just a fact, and it's human nature."

There are also signs, however, that science spending still enjoys a fair amount of support, even as Republicans press hard for budget cuts. A House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee agreed in April to give the National Science Foundation a budget of $7.33-billion for the 2013 fiscal year, up 4.1 percent from this year's level. The proposed increase, $299-million, was just short of the $340-million sought by President Obama.

And the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which revived the Golden Fleece Award several years after Mr. Proxmire's death, has never cited a science project. Taxpayers for Common Sense would "absolutely not" take the position that scientific research is generally a waste of federal money, said the group's president, Ryan Alexander.

"It's something where government investment can have a big return for taxpayers," Ms. Alexander said. "That said, we take the position that you really do need to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, and there are lots of examples in every area" of the federal budget where the spending is "actually silly and wasteful."

For example, she cited the study of livestock odor by researchers at Iowa State University and studies of bees at a federal laboratory in Texas, both of which drew public criticism in 2009 from Republicans. In the end, Taxpayers for Common Sense didn't see fit to award a Golden Fleece in either case.

In fact, when scientists explain the actual value of studying something like a bee, which is critical to agriculture, it can be "super compelling," Ms. Alexander said. "On both sides, positive and negative, people are using politics and optics to try to advance an agenda. That's not going to lead to the best decision-making. That said, that's what garners public attention."

Mr. Cooper said he understands the politics of ridiculing research, coming from a state where attacks on the science of evolution and climate change are popular.

"We all want our kids to do well in school. We don't want America to lag behind," said Mr. Cooper, who was first elected to Congress in 1982. "And yet so often parents are the ones who are making fun of science and scientists. It should be one of the most honorable professions. It's discovering truth."