For those of you out there who aren’t literary majors -we forgive you- you may not be entirely certain of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Brave Prince Jason, in order to prove his worth to be king, sets out on an impossible task to capture the Golden Fleece. Many believed it be a fool’s errand, like sending someone to find headlight fluid or to define the appeal of Nicholas Cage’s acting ability. People just saw it as a waste of time and money, and that is exactly what some people believe about Government science funding. We’re not talking about the exciting stuff, like Tony Stark blowing up a mountain. No we’re talking about the minutia of research that gets done every year on the taxpayer’s dime, such as studying the mating habits of the screwworm. After all, how can we justify millions of dollars in research when we have terrorism, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure? Our only answer is: Because no one else will do it.
The Golden Fleece Award
The above example of “studying the mating habits of the screwworm,” was not just a random hyperbolic anecdote, with a comically named twist. It was a real study conducted by the US Government to understand the sex-life of a parasitic fly that targeted cattle. It was awarded the Golden Fleece Award by Wisconsin Senator, William Proxmire. He started the award to call out government waste, often by citing some “silly” research being done by the National Science Foundation, NASA, or others. Such as the time in 1978 when NASA proposed to spend $15 million on searching for extraterrestrial life, or when the Smithsonian spent $89,000 to make a dictionary of Tzotil, an obscure Mayan language spoken by 120,000 farmers in rural Mexico. Other recipients of the award included a $500,000 study in 1975 to determine why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws, and another study to determine why drunk fish are more aggressive than sober fish. These were the kinds of things that Senator Proxmire laughed at, and cited as a waste of good taxpayer dollars.
Yet, here’s the thing… The study on drunk fish ultimately resulted in significant insights into how alcohol affects and impairs humans, and has helped shape our understanding of how to save lives. The jaw clenching study was later used by NASA and the Navy to help improve the quality of life for humans kept in confined spaces for long periods of times, such as in spaceships and in submarines. Those are not the only examples, either. Studying acoustic trauma in guinea pigs resulted in a way to treat hearing loss in infants. Another study on dog urine taught scientists the effects of hormones on the human kidney especially for patients with diabetes. All of these seemingly inconsequential and “silly” studies won the Golden Fleece Award at one time or another and they all turned around to pay massive dividends both economically and in quality of life. In fact, the study that was conducted on the mating habits of the screwworm -still a great name- cost the US taxpayer about $25,000 dollars. In turn, the research was used to save the US cattle industry more than $20 billion dollars. By studying the mating habits scientists were able to create a sterile population that they introduced into the wild that ultimately resulted in the eradication of the screwworm pest.
That’s the thing with science. You never really know where the wind will lead until you open your sails and try. Creating something like the Golden Fleece Award and then taking a study out of context to ridicule it is not only a complete misrepresentation of the scientific process, but it is dangerous and runs the risk of demonizing and isolating scientists that are doing important and groundbreaking research-based study. In fact, we find ourselves agreeing with Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, when he said that things like the Golden Fleece Award have a “chilling effect on research” It could render researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they take fewer risks and innovate less. The idea that the government should not be wasting money on research -even funny sounding research- is a triumph of ignorance over progress. These projects are important, even when they are failures.
What we Learned from SETI
You may have heard of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Aside from being the first people to notice when we are being invaded at the start of Independence Day, SETI is also one of the programs we talked about in the first section. In 1978, Senator Proxmire heavily criticized NASA for wanting to spend $15 million on searching for aliens. The idea sounded crazy, and in 1981 he succeeded in getting funding pulled for the project. It took Demigod Carl Sagan himself to convince Proxmire to restore funding a few years later. It was ultimately killed again in 1993 and is currently funded by private donations, but that’s not the point. Searching for extraterrestrial life is probably the biggest scientific longshot there is, and as of the publishing of this article the project is still a failure. -And if by some chance you are reading this in the future and it no longer is a failure, we here at The NYRD want to be the first to apologize to our alien overlords for ever doubting them- Yet, is any science ever really a failure?
That is thing some people don’t always understand about science. Just because an experiment fails to confirm a theory does not mean the experiment itself is a failure. In fact, any experiment that disproves a theory is just as valuable as one that proves it. That is the nature of science, it is subjective and not driven by positive results alone. So far we have failed to prove the existence -or at least the proof- of intelligent alien life, but those failures continue to teach us new things, not just about how we conduct our experimentation, but about how we see the world. After all, Jason and the Argonauts did not find the Golden Fleece on the first island they checked, but they persevered and learned from their failures. In the same way, science’s failures drive our knowledge as much as its successes. It also drives our imagination and creativity. SETI especially challenges our views of the world, forcing us to ask “are we alone,” and to confront fundamental truths about ourselves. We look out into the night sky and wonder what might be staring back at us. We wonder who they might be. Do they love? Do they hate? What are their opinions on Jar Jar Binks? Science, even in its failures, makes us grow in ways we never thought possible, but science and innovation are not built in a bubble. We have Google because we have the Internet. We have the Internet because we have home computers. We have home computers because we have electricity, and so on down the line. Science works in the same way and that means it has to all start somewhere.
Discovering a New World
Unfortunately, when it comes to the US Budget, organizations like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other pure science programs are usually the first to get cut, usually in the face of military or social security spending. In 2009, Scientific research only received $111,664 million in federal spending. That is a total for all departments across the board: Health and Human Services, The National Nuclear Security Administration, etc. Defense got the largest chunk at $56,224 million. The National Science Foundation only received $4,156 million. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got even less at $567 million. Those are the people, by the way, who manage our National Weather Service, and who study the effects of things like extreme climate… which is something we should probably consider putting more money into. Thankfully, the Federal Research Budget has been increasing again after it dipped in the 2000’s. Things are looking up for science, but some people still wonder why the government has to fund seemingly useless projects. Why not private industry or universities?
The truth is that private industries and universities do contribute to research based science, but only so far as it supports an end goal. Businesses are not going to spend money without expecting a return on investment. Universities are a little better, but professors still need to produce results to publish papers to keep their jobs. That means a lot of university scientists will tend to stick to “sexier” topics, ones that will guarantee them a published paper and another few years of tenure and unpaid undergrad assistants. It is an environment of “publish or perish.” Government funded projects are different. Research funded by the National Science Foundation or other government agencies are often not so focused on positive results as they are on the science behind the process. It is science for science’s sake and that is unmistakably important.
Take Space X for example. We all love the musk of Elon, but without NASA and government funding he would never have gotten into the space game. NASA was the first to chart near-Earth orbit and learn the necessary science that it takes to get rockets into the sky and put create stable satellites. Governments always have to go first. They are the entities that take the risks for the sake of science. Private industry then follows in their footsteps, taking the lessons and mistakes of governments and streamlining them. A private corporation would never risk billions on an untested theory. It was not the East India Company that first sent ships to the new world. It was not Elon Musk who put a man in orbit, but he is perfecting the process and making it cheaper, accessible, and more profitable. Private companies cannot be relied on to conduct science for science’s sake. There is no profit in it. That is why national funding for science is so important, but much like Queen Isabella, that does not mean the US Government is always doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.
The End of Dividends
Despite what some senators may want you to think the government is not just throwing away money on useless research. They do evaluate the projects and determine what sort of results it can have, and that pays off in big ways. Everything from the Internet to vaccines have come from government research. In fact, investment in research has -what statisticians have called- a very “heavy-tailed” distribution. That means given the amount of government funded research that has taken place over the years statistics would predict a certain average amount of positive benefits to result from the work. In reality, a significantly more amount of positive benefits have resulted from these studies, much higher than the expected average. Everything from the atomic bomb to modern electronics have flourished from government funded research. In fact, studies have shown that investment in basic research -low level screwworm research- can produce returns between 20% and 60% annually, which becomes a positive feedback loop. Scientific progress begets scientific progress.
America may not be as old or as wise as some of our European cousins, but we have always had a leg up because of our focus on innovation. The “American Century” was made possible by our dedication to science and technology, but we’re starting to lose our competitive edge. Less students are going into fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, in part because there are less job opportunities there. This is where funding and big ideas can really help. Creating science jobs and inspiring kids to love science will help restore our flagging scientific deficit. If we, as a nation, want to remain competitive, we need to start funding research and science.
Remember, King Pelias sent Jason on the quest to find the Golden Fleece because he thought it foolish, but like drunk fish and screwworms, the endeavour proved to be extraordinarily fruitful. That is the moral of the Golden Fleece and the the Golden Fleece awards.