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Golden Goose Highlights Bipartisan Support for Basic Science

Larry Smarr

Larry Smarr (Calit2.net)

15 February 2014. Research on black holes in space by a University of Illinois physicist led to development of an early Web browser on which much of today’s browsers are based. That physicist, Larry Smarr, now at University of California in San Diego, is the first 2014 winner of the Golden Goose award to recognize obscure federally-funded research that led to wide practical applications.

The award, announced today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, also underscored that basic research in Congress has bipartisan support, although both representatives Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) stressed that support is fragile and needs more vocal support from scientists themselves.

Smarr in the 1980s was conducting research in gravitational physics at University of Illinois in Champaign, which required enormous computing power, beyond the ability of his campus to provide. National Science Foundation was funding Smarr’s research, so he turned to NSF to argue for a national supercomputing center, much like those at the time in Europe . Smarr’s campaign resulted in the first National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Champaign, led by Smarr, and funded by NSF.

The team at the new NCSA site still had to make it possible for researchers to interact with the site’s computing power, which led to Smarr forming a software development team led by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina that in 1993 started work on what became NCSA Mosaic, an early Web browser. Mosaic was a cross-platform browser that displayed text and images written in HTML, but it allowed users to access Web documents without writing code.

The developers of Mosaic soon recognized the larger potential of their creation, and began offering the browser free of charge from NCSA, and the number of downloads quickly exceeded 5,000 per month. Andreessen went on to start Netscape, a browser and company that helped make the Web a commercial and media undertaking as well as an academic tool. Andreessen later founded the venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz that today financing an array of technology start-ups.

Smarr will receive his 2014 Golden Goose award , with other winners in September. The Golden Goose award was thought up by Rep. Cooper as a way of highlighting the important role played by basic research, which sometimes is the subject of attacks by members of congress, who express outrage at obscure or strange-sounding studies funded by federal dollars. The name is in part a reaction to the much publicized Golden Fleece awards begun by the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin that often ridiculed individual research grants.

At the AAAS meeting, Cooper pointed out that support for funding basic science is not a partisan issue, and attracts support from current and former members of the House and Senate as ideologically diverse as former conservative House  Speaker Newt Gingrich and progressive Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Hultgren, whose district includes Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, will present the award to Smarr in September.

A protein from jellyfish

But he  and Republican colleague Hultgren noted that support needs constant reminders from scientists and their supporters outside the Beltway. Cooper said scientists must do a better job in telling their stories on Capitol Hill, adding, “We need your stories for science to come alive in Washington.”

Some of those stories were told at the meeting by Leslie Tolbert, a neuroscientist and former vice-president for research at University of Arizona, and Martin Chalfie, a biologist at Columbia University. Tolbert described how the research process is unpredictable, with findings taking unanticipated turns, and like Smarr discovered, creating enterprises having little to do with the original funding goals.

Chalfie told how early research in Japan, by accident, discovered the underlying biology causing fluorescence in jellyfish. Later studies by Chalfie discovered what became known as green fluorescent protein from jellyfish, a discovery for which he shared the 2008 Nobel prize in chemistry.

Green fluorescent protein became an ubiquitous tool in biology, cited in some 160,000 papers for its ability to illuminate and track dynamic processes, such as gene expression and interactions between microorganisms. Chalfie noted that green fluorescent protein is also used by the biotechnology industry for drug discovery and biosensors.

Chalfie outlined some lessons from his work with green fluorescent protein. Many, if not most, discoveries in science are accidental, he said, and scientific progress is cumulative, with grant and university support crucial to its success. He also noted that grad students and postdoctoral researchers are often the innovators in science labs.

“Basic research is essential,” Chalfie concluded. “That’s where it all begins.”

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