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Science oddities win Golden Goose

Golden Goose Award

Physicist Charles Townes' seemingly useless research in the 1950s led to the invention of the laser in 1960.

Scientists who came up with laser technology, glow-in-the-dark proteins and coral-inspired bone grafts received the first-ever Golden Goose Awards today on Capitol Hill, as part of a campaign to counter the fuss over seemingly silly science.

Believe it or not, all those innovations came from federally funded research projects that were once dismissed as too arcane or unworkable to produce practical applications. And that's the point: It's easy to mock scientists who teach robots to fold laundry or put shrimp on underwater treadmills. But sometimes it's the ridiculous research that yields a big payoff.

"We should honor, not mock, scientists," U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said in a news release. "Like the fabled golden goose, today's awardees gave unexpected gifts to mankind. Budget cutbacks must be made, but science should be spared."

It was Cooper who came up with the idea behind the Golden Goose Awards as a counterbalance to the negative stereotype often attached to odd or obscure studies. Back in the 1970s, Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., created the Golden Fleece Awards to ridicule federally funded projects that he thought were wasteful. His "winners" included NASA, which sought $2 million to fund a radio-based search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and the National Science Foundation, for spending $84,000 on relationship research.

The tradition has continued in recent times, in the form of congressional reports that are critical of NSF spending. For what it's worth, the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that total federal spending on research and development has been staying around the level of 11 to 13 percent of overall discretionary spending for more than 30 years. 

The Golden Goose Awards are the result of Cooper's collaboration with other lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, as well as with the AAAS and other science-minded organizations. The program's stated purpose is "to demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure or unusual studies that have led to major breakthroughs and have had a significant impact on society."

The eight Golden Goose recipients were announced over the weekend. Here's the list:

  • Charles Townes, a physicist who was told early in his career not to waste resources on an obscure technique for amplifying waves of radiation into a continuous stream. His research in the 1950s led to the invention of laser technology, which was initially seen as a "solution looking for a problem." Today, of course, lasers are essential for applications ranging from DVD players and grocery-store scanners to surgery, military weapons and nuclear fusion experiments. Townes' work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964.
  • Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy and the late Jon Weber, who spent way too much time studying the microscopic structure of tropical coral. They eventually figured out that the structure could be adapted to create a type of ceramic scaffolding that's commonly used today in bone grafts and prosthetic eyes.
  • Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osamu Shimomura, whose research focused on the nervous systems of jellyfish. In the 1960s, Shimomura extracted a substance known as Green Fluorescent Protein, or GFP, that made certain jellyfish glow under ultraviolet light. Chalfie and Tsien later found ways to use GFP and similar proteins as cellular markers in a variety of organisms. The discoveries earned the trio a Nobel Prize in 2008. In its Nobel citation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said glow-in-the-dark proteins have become "a guiding star for biochemists, biologists, medical scientists and other researchers."

AAAS CEO Alan Leshner said the stories behind the awards demonstrated that "the unexpected benefits of basic research have been huge." What do you think? Get the full story from the Golden Goose website — and get set to hear about a new wave of seemingly silly science next week, when the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements "that first make you laugh, and then make you think."

More about silly science:

In addition to the AAAS, the Golden Goose Awards' founding organizations include the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Breakthrough Institute, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, The Science Coalition, the Task Force on American Innovation and United for Medical Research. Other organizational sponsors include the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Chemical Society and the American Mathematical Society.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.