“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” — Wayne Gretzky (former professional ice hockey player and coach)

Once upon a time there was a Senator from Wisconsin who thought it a good idea to publish a monthly bulletin highlighting what he viewed as the most frivolous and wasteful uses of taxpayers’ dollars. From 1975 until 1988, Senator William Proxmire offered the Golden Fleece Awards. The June 1987 award, as just one example, called out the Executive Office of the President for spending $611,623 to fit one room with gold trim.

Fairy tales often start funny and sweet, but beware the wolf in sweet grandma’s pajamas. Senator Proxmire’s intentions may have gone awry. Many of the awards have gone to scientists, and these researchers’ intentions have been presented unfairly, making them appear frivolous. Golden Fleece Awards have raised suspicion and hostility towards the notion of government spending on science and, indeed, toward science itself.

Maybe you’ve heard of the shrimp on the treadmill? Or smiling bowlers?

Then, along came Representative Jim Cooper (TN 5), who suggested attempting to temper growing animosity toward federal funds going to science and indeed to science itself brought on by some of these awards. He aimed to show that not only is the return on investment in scientific research 100% (well, ok, 150%) worth it, but also that successes in science are often unpredictable. The Golden Goose Award was first awarded in 2012 and aims “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society.”

The AMS is a contributing sponsor of the Golden Goose award and gets excellent visibility within the broader Washington D.C. science community as a result of our investment(with science advocates, federal agency employees, allies in Congress). If you have ideas for nominations, feel free to contact me.

Mathematicians have been recognized. In 2013, Lloyd Shapley and David Gale (together with economist Al Roth) were recognized for their work on an algorithm which could be used to match spouses, in order to maximize marriage stability. Their original research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and may sound silly. But, as many of us know, this work has saved many lives because it’s now been used to improve our national kidney exchange program. The work has also been employed by urban school systems for school choice programs, and has been honored with a Nobel Prize. Maybe not so silly after all?

On September 27, I was fortunate to represent the AMS at the annual awards ceremony. The audience of several hundred was very enthusiastic. Indeed, the woman sitting next to me (a food systems policy expert who served in President Obama’s OSTP) told me that it was the best audience she had ever been a part of, at any sort of event (and I think she was including concerts, plays, everything …. I know her, and she does not mince words!).

This year, another mathematical theory was recognized. Lotfi Zadeh was honored, posthumously, for giving birth in the 1960s to fuzzy sets and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic replaces the 0/1 Boolean choice by a number between 0 and 1. One might think it is like probability theory. Consider the proposition that “It was cold in Nuuk on October 2, 2017”. There is no uncertainty about the high temperature that day (36F), but more there is a question of whether this can be categorized as ‘cold’. Fuzzy logic might give that proposition a degree of correctness of 0.8.

This idea has met commercial success in the operation of electronic devices: “In 1986, the first commercial application of fuzzy logic hit the shelves in Japan: a fuzzy shower head. Using fuzzy concepts of hot, cold, high pressure, low pressure, and others, the shower head could use fuzzy logic to control showers across the country. Within a few years, the market was overflowing with fuzzy consumer products. Vacuum cleaners, rice cookers, air conditioning systems, microwaves, everything was moving to fuzzy control. Even the entire subway system of Sendai in Japan was built with fuzzy logic controlling the motion of the trains.”

Dr. Zadeh earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Columbia University, after migrating first to Iran from his native Azerbaijan, and then to the U.S. The September 27 ceremonies included remarks from Senators Cory Gardner (CO), Chris Coons (CT), and Representatives Suzanne Bonomici (OR 1), Randy Hultgren (IL 14), Paul Tonko (NY 20), Bill Foster (IL 11), and Golden Goose “father” Jim Cooper. Their remarks focused on the tremendous importance of funding promising research projects and that we don’t always know what we will discover is often exactly the point of pursuing a scientific question. Oh, right, this is Wayne Gretzky’s famous assertion that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

The congressional members (from both parties mind you!) greeting the welcoming crowd also addressed the global scientific strength achieved through open immigration and travel policies, as Dr. Zadeh’s example shows. In fact, several of the recipients are immigrants. And, another of the award-winners’ trajectory told a differently compelling story: frog researcher Joyce Longcore did her Ph.D. in her 50s and talked emotionally about her journey from stay-at-home-mom to world-class chytrid researcher.

Good science supported by courageous federal investment is in our nation’s interest and needs bipartisan support.

We must all get out there, and tell our stories to celebrate mathematics (and all science) and convince all lawmakers of the importance of a robust and sustained investment in scientific research. The federal government can take risks – big and small – to further science; the private sector will not invest in basic research in the same way.

A post-note of sorts; more reasons to stand up for science: In 2015, Representative French Hill (AK 2) decided to bring back the Golden Fleece. And, Senator Rand Paul (KY) has just introduced the BASIC Research Act (S. 1973) as part of his effort to convince others that there’s a lot of “silly research” being done that does not deserve federal funding.

The AMS sponsors the Golden Goose Award.

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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