Success is never guaranteed, we need to reward doggedness and chance, Russ Swan reminds us.
You’ve heard of the Ig Nobels, but have you heard of the Golden Goose Awards? While the former are international honours to recognise scientific research that ‘makes you laugh, then makes you think’, the latter are a slightly earnest attempt to identify the value of the unexpected outcome – the happy accident, the chance discovery, or the merits of patience in experimentation.
Despite being firmly American, there is the kernel of an idea here which the funders of science in the UK could learn from. The Gooses celebrate the benefits to society that have accrued in ways that could not have been foreseen. Crucially, the scientists in question were all Federal (ie, central government) funded.
The 2023 awards, recently announced, include one project that took decades years to gestate. David Deamer had the idea for what we now call nanopore sequencing in the late 1980s. His papers were rejected by top-tier journals, and the wider scientific community expressed scepticism, but he persevered. Eventually the work was commercialised into an inexpensive pocketsized device now used around the world to monitor outbreaks of infectious diseases including Ebola, Covid and tuberculosis.
Other research recognised includes the surprising discovery by Mary-Dell Chilton that bacteria could transfer their DNA into plants, leading to the development of agrobacterium-mediated transformation (AMT) and in turn the now ubiquitous Crispr/Cas9 process.
Science is financed only if it is practically guaranteed to be a ‘success’ (whatever that is), and our universities are seen as a drain on resources
The extraordinary benefits of the work of these scientists could not have been predicted, but they won funding anyway.
Meanwhile our bean-counting Government seems to place little value on anything it can’t measure and see an instant return from. Science is financed only if it is practically guaranteed to be a ‘success’ (whatever that is), and our universities are seen as a drain on resources rather than some of the greatest seats of learning in the world.
This Government is much more motivated to hasten the climate emergency, opening up new oil and coal fields while delaying the ban on internal combustion vehicles and allowing developers to further pollute our already shit-laden waterways. All this in the vain pursuit of a few votes from geriatrics and neanderthals, and fat donations to party funds from the bloated corporations that benefit.
There is an irony in the fact the Golden Gooses had their genesis in a politician’s campaign to eradicate wasteful spending in science. In the 1970s and ’80s, US senator William Proxmire gave out what he called Golden Fleece awards to projects he considered profligate. Anything that he couldn’t personally understand was singled out for ridicule.
In fact, he merely highlighted his own ignorance and sparked a backlash from wiser heads, notably Representative Jim Cooper, who understood the benefits of science for science’s sake. The Fleeces became the Gooses.
I think we should have a British version, to indicate to those holding the purse strings that sometimes we just have to do things because they need to be done. They won’t all turn into radical discoveries that change the world, but some might. And that should be enough.