In these days of tight government budgets, scientific research -- much of it done at large universities -- is under attack by belt-tightening politicians. Critics think that limited tax dollars should be spent on projects with clear payoffs.
"It's easy to be critical, and hard to see the long-term implications," says Steve Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania. "Research grants are low-hanging fruit."
He's excited about a new opportunity to highlight scientific work with valuable payoffs, as a member of a committee awarding Golden Goose Awards, which will be given to "projects with a good ROI [return on investment], that have a positive scientific, societal or economic impact," he explains.
Scientific associations, funding agencies and universities will nominate projects that have turned out to have significant long-term impact. "The success of any research has some unpredictability," says Fluharty, "but some discoveries can transform our understanding of life processes, energy, etc."
The eight members of the committee represent a variety of disciplines, including molecular biology, materials science, medicine and surgery, chemistry and physics, as well as Fluharty's own field, neuroscience.
The Golden Goose awards are the brainchild of Sen. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, and the project has gotten bipartisan support. "This is critically important at this time, as we face unprecedented cuts in funding for research," Fluharty says.
Why study the sex lives of worms?
The award is named with a nod to the Golden Fleece Awards, which the late Sen. William Proxmire gave to highlight what he regarded as silly research.
One of Proxmire's Golden Fleeces went to scientists researching the sex life of screwworms. It turns out that the screwworm is a deadly cattle pest, and the research ultimately saved the American cattle industry billions of dollars. Sen. Proxmire eventually apologized for calling the research a waste of money.