The annual Golden Goose Award Ceremony is next Thursday, September 17. To help raise awareness, the organization announced the third group of researchers to be recognized in 2015. The awards seek to draw attention to seemingly obscure research that led to significant breakthroughs.
Joel E. Cohen of Rockefeller University and Christopher Smallwood of Columbia are recognized with a Golden Goose Award on their work combining population biology and earth sciences to explore population dynamics. Their work, which started after Cohen attended a talk by Smallwood in 1996, focused on how altitude affected the distribution of population.
With support from the National Science Foundation and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Cohen and Smallwood combined a new global population map with a global digital map with altitudes to start their work. Combining Cohen’s background in mathematical population biology and Smallwood’s geophysical expertise, they teased out at what altitudes people lived and how those people were distributed over the world.
The pair have since used this information to outline challenges for populations at both low and high altitudes, with the latter group attracting the interest (and financial support) of the Frito-Lay corporation. (Buy a bag of chips/crisps and travel over a mountain range to see why Frito-Lay might want to support this research.)
The 1998 paper that Cohen and Smallwood published describing this new subfield of altitude-focused population dynamics (hypsographic demongraphy) has been cited by researchers in a wide variety of fields, including the biomedical sciences, manufacturing and ecology.
This is certainly important work, and the possible impacts would not necessarily been apparent at the start. I’m not entirely sure that the initial project – combining research tools from different fields – would have gotten the kind of scrutiny and sound-bite disapproval that I think the Golden Goose Awards are trying to counter. Put another way, serendipity is perhaps necessary but not sufficient. But I’m not giving out the awards.