[One of the primary examples used in this article (quoted in our usual box) has been updated. One of the winners, Wallace Coulter, declined the award because the Foundation could not document that the work was done with government money. Having worked on numerous government contracts, I don’t think this matters in the least. Wallace Coulter’s career was subsidized by government contracts. The Foundation is claiming that they can’t say if he was working on that particular bit of research under a government contract. See the Update below if you want to look into this issue more. -FM]
Ben Florsheim wrote a really good article over at Washington Monthly last week, Against the “Golden Fleece” Award. For those of you who are not familiar with this award, it was created by Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire. He was something of a star among liberals. Not only did he have the right positions on pretty much all policy questions, he did not take money from Political Action Committees. Of course, it was the case that he was dearly loved in Wisconsin and didn’t need that money. But still: Proxmire was a good guy.
The one bad thing about him—and it is really bad—is his starting of the Golden Fleece Awards. And now, they are about the only thing people remember about him. Fully half of the Wikipedia page section on his legislative career is dedicated to the awards. And that is in a page that makes no mention of his refusal to take PAC money. The Golden Fleece Awards were given out for wasteful government spending. Unfortunately, the awards often came down to simply not understanding the need for basic scientific research. Everyone can have a good snicker about funding research on Monarch butterfly sex. But when species decline starts to affect agricultural yields, it stops being so funny.
In a sense, the award was the beginning of the modern wave of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Now it is common for (almost always) conservatives to claim that this or that research is a joke based only on its title. As Florsheim noted about the beginning of the award, “The NSF had spent $84,000 in taxpayer dollars to fund a study on the origins of love. Proxmire didn’t think that was a good use of $84,000. And thus, a new generation of headline-grabbing anti-intellectualism was ushered into an institution where such posturing had a storied legacy on which to build: Congress.”
As you can see in that example, there are big problems. First, $84,000 isn’t a lot of money. It is one thing to point out a useless weapons system that the military doesn’t even want. And Proxmire certainly did that. But more often, the target was small research contracts that, even if they were of dubious value (and that was rarely the case), didn’t save any real money. But even more important, it just added fuel to the widely held belief that the government wastes all kinds of money when that just isn’t the case.
Last year, a group of like minded people decided to push back on this nonsense by creating the Golden Goose Award. It is meant “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society.” Florsheim explains this years winners:
This year, the first recipients of the Golden Goose Award were John Eng, a VA doctor who with funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered that the venom of the Gila monster (a type of lizard) contains a hormone that is a highly effective treatment for diabetes; and the late Wallace Coulter, invented a now-industry-standard way to count blood cells while using funding from the Office of Naval Research to (of all things) “improve the paint used on Navy ships.” Rep. Charlie Dent said in the Golden Goose press release about Coulter that “you can almost imagine the pithy sound bites that would be used to denigrate his request—’Government paying people to watch paint dry’—or something along those lines. Instead, what the American taxpayers received was a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing.” [Update: whether Coulter was working under a government grant for that work has since been questioned. -FM]
There is nothing more annoying to me (and probably most people) than people showing total ignorance while feeling superior. The very idea of the Golden Fleece Award is bad because it flatters people’s prejudices. There is certainly government waste, but the approach to it should be argument, not shame. All shame does is lower confidence in the government. The Golden Goose Award is a needed palliative, but I suspect it won’t be that effective. “Outrage: Government Funds Gila Monster Venom Study” sells newspapers. “Scientist Finds Treatment for Diabetes” doesn’t. But we’ve got to try.
Update (2 December 2013 5:56 pm)
A commenter noted that the Wallace Coulter Foundation declined the Golden Goose Award. He seemed to think this undercut the entire article, but to me it matters not at all. The Foundation declined the award, “While there can be no doubt as to the extraordinary achievements of Mr. Coulter, who discovered the Coulter Principle and invented the Coulter Counter, the Foundation determined that it could not be certain that federal funding was involved in the discovery of the Coulter Principle, which was the basis for the award.” Does this change the article. I will leave that to you to decide.