Soy, Frogs and “Fuzzy Logic”: the 2017 Golden Goose Awards

By Lindsay Davis, GSA Science Policy Fellow

As geoscientists, we recognize that federal research funding is pertinent. Federal funding drives scientific advancement and innovation, allows us to develop our careers, provides a mechanism through which students can learn, benefits people, promotes economic growth, and has a host of additional benefits. Due to the nature of science, however, it is sometimes challenging to advocate for federal funding because we may not know how our contributions will ultimately fit into the larger puzzle of society. The Golden Goose Award was created to honor members of the scientific community whose research contributions have ultimately had a substantial positive impact on society, often despite criticism or perceived irrelevance at the time of inception. Although those among us conducting research typically find our work interesting and applicable to a plethora of global problems, not everyone sees federal science funding as a priority, especially when money gets tight and difficult decisions must be made. Some may even see certain scientific endeavors as wasteful or unnecessary.

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2017 Golden Goose Awardees discuss their research during the awards ceremony

The history of the Golden Goose Award is quite unique. The initial inspiration for the award actually came as an opposing viewpoint to a very different type of award. In 1975, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) wanted to discourage wasteful federal spending. As a result, he gave out “Golden Fleece Awards” each month for over a decade to people who he deemed were not using federal funding wisely. Scientific researchers were often recipients because the link can be hard to draw between preliminary research and the ultimate and often unforeseen benefits that research may have for society. Contrary to Senator Proxmire’s approach, Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) saw an opportunity to promote innovative science by rewarding federally-funded research projects that have resulted in benefits for society. In 2012, decades after he conceived the idea for the Golden Goose Awards, the founding organizations awarded the first three teams for federally-funded research which resulted in a significant contribution to society. That tradition is still on-going.

This year three different groups, a total of seven individuals, received the Golden Goose Award at an awards ceremony held at the Library of Congress on September 27th. The first award went to Kaichang Li, a wood chemist, for discovering a way to produce wood glue without using formaldehyde. Inspired by mussels clinging to wet and dirty rock surfaces, Li devised a way to replicate their amazing ability using methods that would be economically viable for the commercial wood industry. While eating tofu one day, he realized that the marine adhesive proteins (MAPs) that were the secret weapon of the mussels could be replicated using soy protein, which is inexpensive and also contains the amino acids that make the MAPs water-resistant and sticky. In 2003, after presenting his work at a conference, Li was approached by the Vice President of Technology and Innovation of Columbia Forest Products, a commercial wood company. The company had been looking for something just like what Li was working on to use in production of plywood, and they wanted to work with Li to commercialize the product. Li received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the product, and in 2006 the company was able to replace all of their wood glue with the new soy-based analog. While there were some speed bumps along the way, use of Li’s product set a precedent for wood manufacturing, and currently 60% of industries that produce plywood and veneer have converted to the soy product. The state of California has also started regulating formaldehyde emissions from certain wood products, and the transformation is paving the way for a new national standard to be implemented in December of 2018. The elimination of formaldehyde has made the industry safer for workers and the products safer for the consumers of commercial wood products.

The second team awarded has contributed significant insight into how a particular genus in the chytridiomycetes (“chytrid”) branch of fungi has been plaguing global frog populations. The four individuals who contributed to the project were: Joyce Longcore, Elaine Lamirand, Don Nichols and Allen Pessier. It started when scientists began to observe deaths of blue poison dart frogs at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Eventually the scientists stumbled upon the research of Joyce Longcore, who had been studying chytrids for decades. Together, the four were eventually able to identify why the frogs were dying. Chytrids were, indeed, to blame. As time passed, a newspaper article drew attention to the fact that global populations of frogs were declining as well, and it included a photograph of the culprit. The team, who originally believed this was isolated problem, knew the organism had been misidentified and was actually a chytrid. From there they were able to provide information for scientists and naturalists worldwide on the deadly skin illness that was killing the frogs. This discovery has provided the information necessary to mitigate the extinction of certain species of frogs by methods such as the establishment of “frog arcs” that are isolating and protecting frogs from the fungi until they can be released into the wild.

Perhaps the awardee most criticized for his rather obscure work was Lotfi Zadeh. Throughout his career, Zadeh’s research made a splash. His first major contribution to society came in the early 1950s when he and another colleague at Columbia University invented “z-transform,” a way to process and analyze discrete time intervals. This idea had many applications, such as improving digital signal processing. He later went on to conduct groundbreaking research on membership functions, which allow computers to assign definitive values to relative concepts such as how tall someone happens to be. Using the term “fuzzy” in his research invited a great deal of criticism; however, his work is some of the most cited in the scientific world. In fact, at one point he nearly received a dreaded “Golden Fleece Award,” until he and the National Science Foundation were able to convince Senator Proxmire of the value of his research. Today we can find Zadeh’s research being applied in everything from shower heads to microwaves, and many of the products in between. Electronics and artificial intelligence, such as our technological friends, Siri and Alexa, are other examples of the applications of his research. Unfortunately, he passed away just weeks before the Golden Goose Awards ceremony, but not before earning 26 honorary Ph.D.’s, a plethora of awards for his work, and the respect of many. Scientists are continuously working to expand the technology he pioneered. As such, Zadeh’s legacy will inevitably live on through his “fuzzy logic.”

All three of these projects resulted in groundbreaking research that is relevant to society, and they are a great way to help non-scientists understand the value of scientific research. The brilliant thing about this award is that anyone can nominate a scientist or a group of scientists for their seemingly “obscure” or underappreciated research contribution that later resulted in significant benefits to society. What an incredible opportunity for the geoscience community to showcase its work. The Golden Goose Award has bipartisan support from five Representatives and two Senators. These Members were not only in attendance, they were included as part of the ceremony and many chose to share personal stories of how science has impacted their own life. For example, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) talked about how he had recently gone tadpole hunting with his son so that they could investigate the lifecycle of a frog together. These stories are so important; politicians are able to take the science conducted by researchers and connect it to their own lives, and those of their constituents, in a personal and tangible way. I encourage you to nominate someone who you think has conducted research which has had lasting and broad impacts on society. I hope that next year there will be a geoscientist up there on that stage!

A complete guide for nominating projects, criteria and eligibility requirements can be found online at https://www.goldengooseaward.org/nomination/

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