Washington, D.C. – Policy makers, scientists and science enthusiasts celebrated quirky, federally funded research, including geoscience, at the fourth annual Golden Goose Award ceremony last Thursday, September 17.

The nerdier sibling of the more glamorous Golden Globe Awards honors seemingly obscure research, funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies, that enabled major breakthroughs in health, natural and computer sciences. Three teams of researchers were honored with speeches by members of Congress and awarded Golden Goose statuettes, each featuring a stylized metal goose entwined with an egg.

Geophysicist Christopher Small, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and mathematical population biologist Joel Cohen, a professor at The Rockefeller University, were honored for their work on “hypsographic demography,” the study of where humans live in relation to altitude.

Small and Cohen found that about 50 percent of the world’s population lives on less than four percent of available land area, and that over one third of the world’s population lives within 300 feet (91 meters) of sea level, according to the 1994 census. They also discovered that some low elevation dwellers live in densely populated cities, like Shanghai, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, while many others are spread out along coastlines.

Small and Cohen published their findings in 1998 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their work helped spur future researchers, including some who found that a rare rumor is more likely to form in humans living at high altitudes. The duo’s research also piqued the interest of Proctor and Gamble, whose soaps form and mix bubbles differently at different altitudes, and Intel, whose microchips cool more or less efficiently depending on elevation.

Golden Goose Awardees on stage at the Library of Congress. Credit: Elizabeth Goldbaum.
Golden Goose Awardees on stage at the Library of Congress. Credit: Elizabeth Goldbaum.

Small and Cohen’s fellow awardees included Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, neurophysiologists who studied how cats’ brains respond to moving dots and lights on a screen in the 1950s and 60s until they accidentally pushed a glass slide across their projector, spurring a flood of discoveries on how mammals’ brains absorb their surroundings.

The third team, including psychologists Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda and Philip Peake, was celebrated for their “Marshmallow Test,” which tested young children’s ability to delay gratification. The premise of the test was to offer a child one treat (typically a marshmallow) now, or wait for two treats later. Although the initial tests in the late 1960s were not filmed, more recent tests have made their way to You Tube, and the results are adorably hilarious. The results also revealed the cognitive skills and strategies that govern self-control, which the researchers found is more easily taught and learned than previously assumed.

The honored researchers join a growing list of scientists from various fields. The Golden Goose Award is the brainchild of Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN). The Golden Goose acts as a foil to the Golden Fleece Awards, which were issued monthly between 1975 and 1988 by the late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) to federal spending Proxmire considered wasteful. Much of the targeted funding went toward scientific research that sounded odd or obscure.

However, Proxmire was forced to apologize after targeting a study on the sex life of screwworms, which may have sounded bizarre, but led researchers to understand how to sterilize entire populations of the livestock parasite, saving millions of cattle and billions of dollars.

Cooper, along with fellow members of congress including Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Robert Dold (R-IL), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Randy Hultgreen (R-IL), supported the event.

Cooper, dubbed “Father Goose” by Hultgreen, pledged to continue federal support for scientific research and said that research “benefits all mankind.”

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow