First Golden Goose Awards Honor Ideas That Hatched Unexpectedly

10 September 2012 4:42 pm

Wikimedia/From The Aesop for Children, Illustrated by Milo Winter; Project Gutenberg etext 1994

Crack science. The new Golden Goose Award, named after the children's fable illustrated in this children's book, wants to call attention to the unforeseen benefits hatched by basic research.

Martin Chalfie thought the Golden Goose Award was a hoax at first. But now that he knows what it is, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Columbia University says that receiving the award this Thursday in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., will be "a highlight" of his career. Intended to showcase researchers who pursue oddball topics that eventually lead to significant health and economic benefits, the awards were created by a coalition of science organizations (including AAAS, publisher of ScienceInsider) as a playful rejoinder to the "Golden Fleece Awards" awarded by the late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), who frequently blasted government-funded basic research as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Three groups of researchers will receive the first round of Golden Goose awards this week. The group that includes Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura, and Roger Tsien are being honored for their Nobel Prize-winning work on green florescent protein (GFP), which comes from bioluminescent jellyfish. They helped develop GFP into a tool now used widely in cell and molecular biology to track gene expression.

Tsien and Chalfie worry that, in a worsening budget climate, political pressure could grow to cut funding for the kind of basic science that led to the GFP work. The Golden Goose is designed to persuade policymakers to avoid that outcome. But Tsien, admitting cynicism, suspects that the award is just "preaching to the choir." Still, Chalfie hopes it will serve as a reminder to scientists and politicians that many of the biggest discoveries in science are joyful surprises: "We shouldn't be so narrow in our seeking," he says.

Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the laser technology we now use in everything from CDs to the Internet, is another award winner. He says that many people, including professors, told him he was wasting his time when he first started trying to amplify waves of radiation into a continuous stream.

The third group of awardees, Jon Weber, Eugene White, Rodney White, and Della Roy, owe their discovery of a new kind of bone graft to curiosity, serendipity and scuba diving. Weber, a marine geologist who is being honored posthumously, was studying the chemical composition of coral when he found that Eugene White, a scuba diver who was working with electron microscopy at the time, was also interested in coral. Using an electron microscope, they discovered that coral has a complicated interior system of pores. Eugene's nephew Rodney White, then a medical student at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), found that this architecture is ideal for blood vessels to grow around in the absence of bone. Della Roy, also at PSU, later found a more durable, naturally occurring material from which to form bone grafts using the coral's structure as a scaffold.

Many discoveries occur "far beyond the imaginations" of people who start out investigating something obscure, Chalfie says. "These accidents happen all the time," he says. "If we're lucky, we realize that we should be paying attention to them."

*This item has been updated on 11 September to reflect that Weber is being honored posthumously.

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