Issue Date: July 2, 2012
Killing The Federal Golden Goose, Bacterial Gender Gap
In one of Aesop’s Fables, a man isn’t content with a goose that lays a single golden egg day after day. He kills the goose in hopes of finding a cache of gold, but alas, he sees nothing inside.
Several science and industry organizations want to make sure the U.S. doesn’t kill any future Nobel Prize-winning geese in its current efforts to trim the federal budget. They have created a Golden Goose Award to honor research that was initially viewed as “unusual, odd, or obscure” but has led to important discoveries.
“We’ve all seen reports that ridicule odd-sounding research projects as examples of government waste. The Golden Goose Award does the opposite,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said in announcing the award. “It recognizes that a valuable federally funded research project may sound funny, but its purpose is no laughing matter.”
The award is also a counterpoint to the renowned Golden Fleece Awards, created by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) to highlight cases of federal government fraud, waste, and abuse. Those awards were given out from 1975 to 1987 but are still replicated by organizations that mock federal spending.
Scientific studies were often the target of Proxmire’s ridicule; his first Golden Fleece Award went the National Science Foundation “for squandering $84,000 to try to find out why people fall in love.”
But research supporters say these darts are often based on an unclear understanding of the science’s value. They point to research on the sex life of the screwworm that won a Golden Fleece Award. That $250,000 project resulted in a technique that disrupted the breeding cycle of the parasite—and saved the cattle industry $20 billion, according to the Association of American Universities (AAU). Proxmire eventually apologized.
The Golden Goose Awards will recognize six federally funded studies each year that might have sounded obscure when they were proposed but led to important breakthroughs.
The award is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and AAU, among others, and supported by at least six members of Congress.
The first awards will be chosen by a group of outside experts and announced in September 2012. “I hope more of my colleagues will join us in supporting, not killing, the goose that lays the golden egg,” Cooper said.
One recent study that might have met the Golden Fleece criteria found that men’s offices contain more bacteria than women’s offices do.
For the overall study, which was aimed at learning more about the bacterial environment indoors, scientists from San Diego State University and the University of Arizona examined office environments in three cities: San Francisco, New York, and Tucson.
Their study, published in PLoS One, showed that men’s offices had more total bacteria than did women’s offices, but the microbes were basically the same type (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037849). The researchers give several reasons why men’s offices might be dirtier. It could be strictly body size, or men could naturally shed more bacteria into the environment. But it could also be that men are just dirtier: “Men are known to wash their hands and brush their teeth less frequently than women, and are commonly perceived to have a more slovenly nature,” the researchers write.
The study also found that chairs and phones are more contaminated than computer mice, keyboards, and desktops. And San Francisco offices had fewer bacteria than those in the other cities.
Proxmire would be glad to know that this study wasn’t funded by the federal government.
Andrea Widener wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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