Studying the sex life of screwworms? Not so silly after all, says Golden Goose Award

Annual award honors “obscure” basic research that ends up improving our lives


Honey bee foraging, the sex life of screwworm flies, and adolescent health might not seem to have much in common. But they are all examples of basic research that was conducted in US research universities – research that may seem frivolous or even silly at first but which turns out to have a serious impact on society. The scientists behind these studies were honored at the Golden Goose Award ceremony Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Each year, the Golden Goose Award is presented to three teams of researchers whose “seemingly obscure, federally-funded research had led to breakthroughs in the development of life-saving medicines and treatments; game-changing social and behavioral insights; and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health.” This year’s winners were on cross-disciplinary teams in engineering, biology, entomology, sociology and genealogy:

From “Golden Fleece” to “Golden Goose”

The Golden Goose Awards were envisioned by US Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee more than two decades ago in response to the “Golden Fleece Awards,” a monthly bulletin from the late Sen. William Proxmire (D) that flagged federal spending of projects he considered wasteful. A popular target for Washington budget cutters, science that sounded frivolous or obscure was frequently singled out for ridicule when in reality it was important work with potentially major societal impact. The sex life of the screwworm may seem like fodder for late-night comedians, but during the 1950s, this bane of America’s cattle ranchers was responsible for losses of $200 million per year – a sum equivalent to nearly $1.8 billion today.

Recognizing the importance of research and its unpredictable nature, Elsevier joined other funders in 2012 as the only benefactor level sponsor to raise the visibility of the award and ensure its future. Elsevier is a member of the Golden Goose Award Steering Committee along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Breakthrough Institute, Progressive Policy Institute, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, The Science Coalition, Task Force on American Innovation, United for Medical Research, University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University.

How honeybees informed web hosting

It may seem like a stretch to connect honey bees with internet traffic, but a decade of research on their foraging behavior and how a bee colony’s decentralized system works, led to the development of an algorithm for allocating shared web hosting servers to internet traffic. The so-called “Honey Bee Algorithm” ensures servers are meeting the needs of application users.

As great ideas often do, this algorithm was born out of a casual conversation. Sunil Nakrani, a former IBM engineer, and Craig Tovey, a Georgia Tech engineer, linked up with fellow engineers John J. Bartholdi III, John Hagood Vande Vate and Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell University biologist who studied the organization of work in honey bee colonies. The “efficiency experts” of the insect world optimized their “workforce” foraging for nectar by distributing themselves among flower patches with no central directive but by sharing information through their behavior. The so-called Honey Bee Algorithm – also known as “self-organizing systems and biomimicry” – is the basis of a model using these foraging behaviors and applying them to efficiently manage the variable demands of internet traffic in the growing multi-billion-dollar web-hosting service market.

As we navigate the internet in our day to day activities, we can thank one of nature’s most industrious insects and a group of curious federally-funded researchers who discovered that being “busy as a bee” opened the door to a whole new world of opportunity. Read the entire description of the “Honey Bee Algorithm” here.

The scourge of the screwworm

On the opposite end of the insect spectrum the scourge of the screwworm (cue laughs) is far from funny. In the first half of the 20th century, screwworm flies killed livestock and wildlife and cost America’s ranchers millions of dollars in losses that are estimated at nearly $1.8 billion in today’s money. But thanks to the tireless work of USDA scientists Drs. Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland, who developed the “sterile insect technique,” most people in North America today have never heard of these pests. Known to local ranchers as “Knip” and “Bush,” the researchers spent hours and hours watching the habits of screwworm flies. Noting that the female screwworm fly seemed to have monogamous mating habits, they realized that sterilizing large numbers of male flies could ultimately result in screwworms eliminating themselves. They were right. Fast forward 50 years: this process is still used today to eradicate other pests, including Aedes aegypti, the mosquito credited with spreading such diseases as dengue fever, yellow fever and Zika virus. Read the full story here.

More than a “teen sex study”

In the field of health, few would argue that healthy children make healthy adults and save billions of dollars in future healthcare costs. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health has long been considered to be the gold standard of basic research on human health. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the revolutionary model developed by sociologists Peter Bearmanat Columbia University with UNC’s Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and J. Richard Udry, paved the way for a vast range of scientific studies and a greater understanding about the importance of the family structure to adolescent health and its influence on long-term health issues such as obesity, long connected to such diseases as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and stroke among others.

The study got off to a shaky start however when it was interpreted as a “teen sex study” and an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. In reality the intended study was far more comprehensive and covered badly needed research at a time when the AIDS epidemic seemed to be leaving no population segment untouched, especially young people. Using a nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 adolescents the study looked at the social contexts in which they live their lives. The resulting integrated social and biological data have enabled researchers to see how unhealthy conditions are often impacted by relationships with family, friends and a person’s social circle. The support of these personal influences can actually help adolescents cope with the stress of daily life and help reduce potential health risks with long-term consequences. Read the full story here.

“All scientific discovery impacts every living being on Earth,” said Dr. Brad Fenwick, Elsevier’s Senior VP for Global Alliances. “Basic research has resulted in knowledge and understanding that continues to help us lead healthier and more fulfilled lives. Elsevier is proud to support the mission of the Golden Goose Award, and we congratulate this year’s winners.”

Watch a mini-documentary about the 2016 Golden Goose Awards



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