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In these straightened economic times it seems like researchers are under ever greater pressure to show that their work can be turned into a money-spinning business. There’s more and more focus on ‘impact’, ‘innovation’ and getting a good return on investment for taxpayers’ hard earned cash. The Golden Goose awards have been launched as the antithesis of this need to make the business case for scientific curiosity – they celebrate the power of blue skies research to change society in ways that can’t yet be imagined.
The inaugural award ceremony took place last night in Washington, DC. Eight scientists were honoured for their basic research that no one would have been able to make a convincing business case for, but their discoveries went on to be incredibly important. Charles Townes received his Golden Goose for his work developing the laser (he won the 1964 physics Nobel prize for this work too). Back in the 1950s, Townes was looking to create an intense source of short wavelength radiation to help his team probe the basic properties of molecules and atoms. Now, the laser is ubiquitous in modern life, in everything from barcode scanners and DVD players to surgical equipment – something no one could have foreseen at the time.
Other recipients of an award were Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy and the late Jon Weber for their work on tropical coral, which led to a material used in bone grafts. Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien and Osamu Shimomura also received an award for their research on jellyfish (they also received the 2008 chemistry Nobel prize!). Their discovery of green fluorescent protein, which explains why jellyfish glow under certain wavelengths of light, has been incredibly useful in teasing out how cells work. It has enabled researchers to watch events like protein transport occur in real time.
The Golden Goose awards are, in part, a mocking tribute to the Golden Fleece awards that one US Senator used to hand out for research he considered to be a waste of money. More recently, spending on basic research financed by the US’s stimulus package has been ridiculed as a waste of public money, largely thanks to images of a shrimp on a treadmill (the project was investigating the effects of pollution on crustacean mobility). The awards are also taking place against a backdrop of economic hardship when the case even needs to be made for public funding of essentials like healthcare. This means that making the argument that blue skies research holds the key to creating new technologies and jobs is more important that ever. Something that the people that fund research should bear in mind.