Golden Goose and the nature of basic research

Via Wonkblog:

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) believes it is time the sex life of the screwworm got its due.

On Wednesday afternoon, Cooper rose to the defense of taxpayer-funded research into dog urine, guinea pig eardrums and, yes, the reproductive habits of the parasitic flies known as screwworms–all federally supported studies that have inspired major scientific breakthroughs. Together with two House Republicans and a coalition of major science associations, Cooper has created the first annual Golden Goose Awards to honor federally funded research “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.”

Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle–costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.

Cooper says that his original inspiration for the Golden Goose Award was the long-running “Golden Fleece Awards” that the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) bestowed upon the most wasteful government spending, beginning in 1975. More recently, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has taken up that mantle. In a report last year on the National Science Foundation, Coburn blasted frivolous-sounding research that received federal funding, including one study that put shrimp on miniature treadmills and another that asked smokers to mail in their toenail clippings.

Good for Cooper!  You know what, a lot of basic research ends up being a dead end with little of lasting value.  But you know what– the whole point of basic research is that you don’t know what’s going to pan out.  The only way to get breakthroughs via basic research is to fund a lot of it.  Maybe most of it will amount to nothing, but those few breakthroughs will be more than worth it.  Once you start cutting out research just because a title sounds funny you may have just cut out the cure for diabetes.  Is some of this basic research more worthy than others?  Of course.  Nobody gets serious money without serious peer review.  Sure, it’s imperfect, but nobody’s come up with a better system.  So, think twice next time you hear the crazy title of some government-funded research.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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