Have you ever read about a scientific study that sounded absolutely ridiculous? You aren’t the only one. Between 1975-88, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin would announce his monthly Golden Fleece Awards, which he handed out to federally funded projects that he considered wasteful spending of tax dollars.
Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee decided that these awards, which often targeted oddly named scientific research, misrepresented the way that science works. Research requires looking at large problems in small pieces (which, when taken out of context, can sometimes sound odd), documenting processes and results in careful, minute detail so that they can be replicated. In 2012, with strong bipartisan support from Congress, a coalition of businesses, universities, and scientific organizations (including AAAS) came together to realize Cooper's vision by creating the Golden Goose Award to honor seemingly obscure research that led to major breakthroughs and significant benefits to society.
Now in its sixth year, the Golden Goose Awards honored this week three groups of researchers who worked in computer science, zoology, and chemistry:
- In the late 1980s, scientists around the world began to notice something was killing off frogs at a startlingly high rate, causing some species to be lost to extinction before the problem was fully realized. Joyce Longcore was a mycologist (a scientist who studies fungi) studying a type of fungus known as chytridiomycetes, or cytrids, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Don Nichols and Allan Pessier were veterinary pathologists (scientists who study death and disease in animals) at the Smithsonian Institute's National Zoo when, in 1996, they found that blue poison dart frogs were dying at an alarming rate of an unidentified skin condition. When Nichols' and Pessier's electron micrograph images pointed them toward cytrids, they reached out to Longcore, who confirmed their suspicion, but told them she'd never seen cytrids attach themselves to vertebrates before. After some experimentation, she realized this was an entirely new genus of cytrid and created a series of steps fellow researchers could use to replicate the fungus in the lab. Adding the help of zoo researcher Elaine Lamirande, the team soon came to realize that the cytrid, which they named Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, attacking the blue dart frogs at the zoo was the same thing decimating wild amphibian populations worldwide. Since their discoveries, scientists across the globe have put into place rescue strategies to protect vulnerable frog species from extinction and governments have instituted policies dictating how animals are moved around the world.
- With support from the Department of Agriculture, chemist Kaichang Li developed a new adhesive that could serve as an alternative to the cancerous formaldehyde-based glue being used in nearly all plywood furniture and cabinetry. Drawing inspiration from the strong adhesive with which mussels stick to surfaces, a marine adhesive protein, Li realized that another protein—soy—might mimic the shellfish's natural glue-like properties. He said that by adding water and a wet strength agent (also found in tissues) to soy proteins, they would stick to surfaces that were both dirty and wet, unlike other adhesives. Working with the largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood panels in the country starting in 2003, Li commercialized his invention, which now coats products made by 60% of the plywood and veneer industry in the United States and significantly reducing the amount of formaldehyde in consumer goods. (Listen to a Science Update podcast with Li, as he talks about his work.)
- The late mathematician, engineer, and computer scientist Lotfi Zadeh, who died earlier this month, published a paper in 1965 entitled "Fuzzy Sets," which is the groundbreaking work of what is now better known as fuzzy mathematics and fuzzy logic. The "fuzzy" concept helps computers sort information that isn't specific, such as the concept of tall or hot. But since 1965, Zadeh's original research paper has become one of the most widely cited in history (more than 90,000 times to date) and used in more than 16,000 patents. Zadeh's work, funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific research, has contributed to improvements in HVAC systems, auto-focus cameras, healthcare devices, household appliances, anti-lock brakes, artificial intelligence, and more.
"AAAS is proud to support the Golden Goose Award, which highlights scientific success stories that would not have been possible without federal funding," said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS. "These scientists have changed the world in unpredictable ways, and we applaud their curiosity, their tenacity, and their achievements."
Science NetLinks has a number of resources on those studying threatened frog species. Learn about disappearing frogs and how to conduct your own scientific investigation. Help solve The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs and find out how author Sandra Markle came to write her book. You can use an app to virtually dissect a frog, learn more about venomous frogs and the Titicaca water frog, and see a National Zoo biologist at work. If you're more interested in the fungus than the frogs, you can learn about endophytic fungi and the bleeding tooth fungus or go mushroom hunting. You also can find out the roles that fungi play in food webs, our skin health, controlling pests, and foodborne illnesses.
Biomimicry, which looks to model solutions to human problems on the natural world, is a burgeoning area of innovation. Here on Science NetLinks, you can find Science Updates on robo roaches, water-repellent spider legs, and efficient cooling systems and lessons on scientists who are looking to nature to solve everything from the problem of fitting into tiny spaces to finding more efficient wind turbines.
Fuzzy logic is used in a variety of technologies. Learn about smart guns and smart headlights, among others. It's also used in other fields, such as art conservation, traditionally a painstaking and time-consuming business. But the process of fixing up a damaged Da Vinci or a scarred Seurat has become a lot easier, thanks to fuzzy logic.
Another award that honors international research that might sound silly, but that has broader impacts, is the Ig Nobel Prize.
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