Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Awards announced the first recipients of the award for 2016. The Golden Goose Awards are intended as a counter to the long passed Golden Fleece Awards. Where the latter targeted federal spending (including some scientific grants) the Golden Goose Awards are intended to point out seemingly obscure research that has significant impacts.
The first honorees this year are Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry. They are being recognized for their work in a key piece of longitudinal research – The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (often called Add Health). This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s and continues to provide insight into human behavior.
The award citation is long, and details the political disagreements that led to delays and then the cancellation of a previously proposed study that more explicitly targeted adolescent sexual behavior. It’s worth reading, but in my mind it distracts from the serendipity that is a common element in Golden Goose Award recipients. I can understand the reasons for pointing out that those who opposed the first study have since come around on its value, but if the goal of the award is to highlight the connections between research and impact that cannot be anticipated, this political debate over funding is off point.
The study benefited from choices made in the research design and early implementation. One of these was botching the collection of medical data from the study participants in the second point in the time series. While preventing the assessment of some relevant medical data, it allowed for the research to continue with a designated cohort for far longer than originally planned. This means that the study initially focused on adolescent to adult health can now track from adolescence throughout the participants lives, should funding continue that long.
Another point of serendipity is the rise in obesity concurrent with this study. The depth of available data allowed researchers to dive into connections between behaviors and obesity. This helped support research pointing out how obesity can actually spread among social groups.
While the Golden Goose Award folks didn’t do it in the citation, I think this award simply reinforces the value of longitudinal studies and the difficulty in designing and implementing them. Either way, the researchers involved in Add Health are worthy of recognition and will receive their award in Washington this September.