June 23 Update – The Golden Goose Award organizers reached out and pointed me to this press noting criticism of the screwworm fly study. There are likely contemporaneous references in the Congressional Record, which to my knowledge has not been digitized that far back.
Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Award recognized the work of Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland on the sex life of the screwworm fly. This is the second group of researchers recognized this year, and their work will be formally recognized at the Golden Goose Award ceremony held this September in Washington.
The Golden Goose Award is meant to recognize federally funded research that may be considered silly or foolish but is later found to have profound impact. The work by Knipling and Bushland was funded by the Department of Agriculture starting in the 1930s, and led to techniques that were critical in eliminating the screwworm fly from North and Central America. Knipling’s work developed and tested a theory of reducing the screwworm fly population by introducing sterilized males and Bushland developed a means for growing the numbers of sterilized males necessary to be effective in eradicating the flies.
Research on the sex lives of flies (or any insect, really) could easily be derided as a waste of effort. Unless those casting aspersions knew of farmers and/or ranchers affected by the spread of such insects. The screwworm fly feeds on living (as opposed to dead) animals, posing a serious risk to livestock and wild animals. I would have expected that the economic impact of eradicating a parasitic fly would have pushed down concerns over the perceived frivolity of fly sex research. But even in the time before Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, the Golden Goose organizers claim that this research was a favorite target of elected officials and others seeking to shine a light on Washington waste. Given what seems like the clear application of this work and its profound impact, I think the value of this particular award (but not the research) is blunted by the lack of direct evidence of the ridicule.
(In researching this post, I have found conflicting accounts as to whether or not Proxmire recognized this work. My review of this Wisconsin history database of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece related press releases suggests he did not.)