Serendipity in Science: Golden Goose Awards

Serendipity in Science: Golden Goose Awards

♦ Scientists are sometimes accused of doing ‘wasteful’ research-studying the obscure or possibly irrelevant. The late senator William Proxmire was famous for his monthly Golden Fleece award, where he called out seemingly silly research projects. One such study on the sex life of the screw worm, however, would go on to effectively cure cattle of a major parasite and save the industry over 20 billion dollars. The beauty of basic research is that one can never predict where and when the next breakthrough happens. The Golden Goose award counters this short sighted vision, and recognizes odd-sounding federally funded research which led to big dividends down the road. 

Federal tax dollars fund rat massage: In 1979, a team of researchers at Duke University were frustrated in their attempts to measure key growth markers in rat pups. When they separated the pups from their protective mothers, the markers mysteriously declined. Patiently, they ruled out nutrition, body temperature and pheromones until they noticed how vigorously the mothers groomed and licked the pups. Could tactile stimulation be important? “I couldn’t get the lab technicians to actually lick the pups”, Dr. Schanberg joked. But a stiff brush worked wonders and the pups thrived away from their mothers. A chance encounter with a psychologist led to testing the effect of infant massage on preterm babies. In controlled studies, massaged infants showed increased growth rates of up to ~50%, greater alertness and quicker hospital discharges, averaging differences of 6 days. A recent analysis estimates that these savings amount to about $10,000 per infant, resulting in a nationwide annual health care savings of $4.7 billion. Infant massage therapy is now used by nearly 40 percent of NICU’s in the US, and is on the rise. Do you have examples to share of seemingly wasteful research with unexpected benefits? 

News Story:

Review on Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research:

From Lizard to Laboratory: my post on the 2013 Golden Goose Award

#ScienceEveryday when it’s not #ScienceSunday .

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71 Responses to Serendipity in Science: Golden Goose Awards

  1. I agree, excellent post. I do want to be a physicist in future, and your posts on the technical side of research and scientific development do indeed add to the uniform acceleration of my forward motion, to use my favourite mechanical analogy. Much appreciated.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Massaging infants is routine in India, and I was intrigued to find scientific evidence of benefits to this. In fact, the research goes on to test different oils used in the massage, with coconut oil (a favorite in southern India) working best. I would tell my mother, but she already knows this 🙂

  3. Rajini Rao You are sending bonding message through skin, don’t give up, there is some one who cares about you and opt to spend time just for you, this will boost any immune system by the opiates the body creates in response.

  4. Well, to be honest I often argued against massaging, especially when I saw my aunt virtually tormenting my 6 months old cousin, a few years back. I feel genuinely surprised to read this as well.

    The universe continues to be more mysterious than ever. 🙂

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    There is some basis for these effects, as you suggest Kannan Somasekar . The authors suggest the pressure stimulates the vagal nerves and bone growth. There’s probably more than that, I agree. 

  6. Paul M says:

    I have two favorite examples that I always use (on long flights):

    1. Someone (I actually don’t know the story) who studied horseshoe crab blood (Limulus amebocytes), which wound up being an indispensable test for contamination of hospital equipment.

    2. (My personal heroes) Sydney Brenner, John Sulston, and Bob Horvitz. Brenner began studying tiny soil nematodes because they were cheap and easy to grow and simple enough (about 1000 cells total) to hope to be able to learn everything about them. Mostly, they were small enough so you could fit an entire one on an electron microscopy grid, so you could examine the entire thing by EM. Sulston came along and decided to watch and chronicle (by hand!) every cell division from the fertilized egg to the adult. He noticed that the lineage was completely predictable and scripted, and that some cells (in a predictable pattern) just died instead of going on to divide further. Then Horvitz came along and observed the cell division lineages like Sulston, but on mutants he found that did it differently. Some mutants’ cells died when they weren’t supposed to. Some that were supposed to die instead went on to divide.

    Seems like such a frivolous waste of time and money. But what they discovered (and eventually won a Nobel prize for) was programmed cell death, which happens in all creatures, including humans, and is even controlled by essentially the same genes as the worm genes in Horvitz’ mutants. And when programmed cell death is messed up, it causes cancer and other diseases. Now there are cancer treatments that target it.

    All from watching worm eggs divide under a microscope. 

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Paul M thank you for the two examples! Actually, I had not heard of the first until I read about the LAL test (Limulus Amebocyte Lysate) on G+: And, C. elegans is a wonderful model system! 

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Ali Adelstein good to see you here, cheers! 

  9. what about adult_massage?

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Good question, Chafik Chahboune . I found this news story on research on the benefits of massage:

  11. Give massage referrals all the time….stress reduction studies are everywhere concerning benefits.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Makes sense, thanks for the reminder, Cheryl Ann MacDonald . Stress reduction is an obvious benefit. 

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    Stuff That Matters! I’d love to know your aunt’s reaction to this story 🙂

  14. Great post, Rajini Rao. It’s too bad my brain doesn’t feel like working today or I might have another to add to the list…

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Carissa Braun how about- the study of monarch’s and milkweed leading to a better understanding of the use of cardenolides in heart therapy, as explained in your wonderful post:

  16. a good massage carissa braun and your brain will be ok ….far way from morocco….hahahahaha

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Chafik Chahboune are you volunteering? We will take a flight to Morocco 😀

  18. Morocco would be great, Chafik Chahboune! Perhaps I need to go if I can’t even recall my own post 😉

  19. you are quite welcome any time ill be your slave

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh, here’s a famous example on the discovery of heat-resistant enzymes from hot spring bacteria leading to the ubiquitous polymerase chain reaction: “When Thomas Brock and his undergraduate assistant Hudson Freeze traveled to Yellowstone in the ‘60s, they were searching for bacteria capable of living in hot springs .

    They had no idea that what they would find would revolutionize the life sciences. Their discovery would have practical applications from HIV testing to the exoneration of death row inmates”. More:

  21. the hazard is the best way to discover new think in science

  22. Chad Haney says:

    Great post Rajini Rao. I don’t have an example of seemingly wasted research (at least off the top of my head) but I do want to remind your readers about intellectual property issues at universities and note that even meaningful basic research can take decades. A lot of people (politicians) are short sighted and would think that is seemingly wasted research. Prof. Silverman at NU took about a decade to develop what is now Lyrica, which the university got a cool $700 million for.

    Pardon me for referencing my blog post.

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    Excellent point, Chad Haney and I’m re-reading your Soapbox Science blog now 🙂

  24. Kevan Hayes says:

    Really intriguing! Yay for basic research and passionate, persistent inquiry

  25. Great examples! Gotta love serendipity…and good science!

  26. I’m sorry but I guess I do not get it. It really seems obvious that touch is important. And it seems obvious to me without the joking manner of subjecting other beings to our will, and to what equates as torture. I guess that is why I opted out of science. I can not stomach the continued research on other beings. I can not justify it based on the gains made in the past.

  27. Kevan Hayes says:

    deborah rabbit white 

    “I can not justify it based on the gains made in the past.”

    Says the person using technology that was developed through scientific research…

    I think you may have a very skewed idea of what constitutes research and the strict ethical guidelines that are employed with animal subjects.

  28. Chad Haney says:

    deborah rabbit white thousands of people would die if it weren’t for biomedical research. Laboratory animals are treated better than most humans in the third world.

  29. Yes. I am saying that I can not justify continuing to use other beings, because I have benefited. It doesn’t need to.

    And please do not tell me about the strict control and ethical guidelines. I have experienced a little, on my own, as a small nobody in the labs, and care facilities.

    I am not trying to be a troll nor an asshole. Honestly why is my questioning the current paradigm wrong, or aggressive?

    I do not generally, go out and about professing my values, and expecting to not be questioned.

    And can I not question who has the right to determine those ethical guidelines? And who judges who has skewed ideas?

    It isn’t as if all of the research has not been terribly fascinating and illuminating to me. I know about the lives saved, I know about how humans treat other humans. This is not justification for me.

    Does that make me a hypocrite because I think it should stop?

    Maybe I am skewed. Maybe I am naive. I am questioning. If a thing can suffer, do I not have some responsibility to question my need to have that thing suffer?

    Honestly I am sorry I said anything at this point.

    I will not bring it up again. I only did so, because I keep my thoughts to myself post after post after post in regard to the normalcy of how other beings are treated and used for our own gains, and I just had a weak moment, of covering up my thoughts.

  30. Chad Haney says:

    deborah rabbit white the problem is that you have mentioned suffering several times and I’m trying to inform you and others reading, that the majority of biomedical research goes through extraordinary measures to eliminate pain and suffering.

  31. Kevan Hayes says:

    deborah rabbit white thanks for sharing your perspective. I have a few comments in response as well as some questions, but it is late and I can not present then v adequately. Perhaps we can carry on in the near future.

    Kind regards,

  32. James Benson says:

    Rajini Rao From a quick scan of the posts here it appears to me that all the choir has spoken. We all agree, all science is relevant! All Scientists (I’m pretty sure u, as a scientist, also agree here) have zero disagreement here! Now how can we transmit that to the politicians, that unfortunately drive decisions, at least in the US, that is the question. Sorry, grumpy old scientist speaking here. ;|

  33. Excellent post Rajini Rao This makes me think of the routine criticism we face in the social sciences by politicians and some public commentators, who say it’s a waste of money to research social issues. This line of thinking is puzzling – social problems don’t go away if we ignore them, and they require structured methods and theories in order to be critically understood. Lack of understanding of the social sciences by people who prefer the status quo do not invalidate the need for this research. I tied this critique to the public furore about a study on duck reproduction from last year. Patricia Brennan was forced to publicly defend her research because she was facing political critique for focusing on the reproductive habits of ducks. In defence of basic research, Carl Zimmer wrote, “Basic research can lead to applications, but we don’t know in advance what particular studies will or won’t do so. That’s because we have much left to understand about how the world works.” (

    Basic research is the cornerstone of all science, whether it’s new medicine, technology, social policy or some other applied outcome. The benefits aren’t always immediately visible, but without basic science, “real world” improvements for health, improving communication, raising the standard of living and addressing inequality are limited. 

  34. Wonderful post. Just wonderful. hats off.

  35. Satyr Icon says:

    I knew contact,  touch, breath, was good for the infant as well as the parent (eg lowers blood pressure), but didn’t know massage helped growth rates?

    So would massage work on older children too? Would they grow quicker? What about adults? Can I grow another 6 inches? How about if I just massaged my left leg only for 6 months, would I end up going round in circles? 🙂

    I know one part of the body which when massaged yields almost instant results, but alas, not only is it temporary, it reverses after a while too. But seriously we should do more experiments. I will continue experimenting.

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    James Benson make that two grumpy old scientists 🙂 As scientists, we can reach out to the voting public, advocate through professional societies, inform and raise awareness in any way we can. NPR is doing a great series of stories on the state of science funding and research in the US- there have been at least 4 stories this month, here are some:





    This last one gave me a shock when I discovered a former colleague had dropped out of science and was running a grocery store 😦

  37. Satyr Icon says:

    Drew Sowersby there is no evidence that industry funded research is any more efficient than government funded research, is there? Otherwise you would have posted some comparative data?

    The other problem with industry is they tend to tighten the criteria such that they get very cheap research, at often tax payer expense.

    An example of this is the last few decades of CSIRO funding in Australia. Gradually, successive governments have been cutting funding to the nations premier research institute, which has meant the organisation has had to go hat in hand to industry to make the shortfall. Often they have had to compete for product development, rather than actual research, and at very competitive prices to win it from other global competitors. International corporations like BOEING would only join the organisation providing the organisation offered infrastructure, training, administration at free cost. But this was already paid for by the tax payer. So what they get is cheap research labour, cheap IP in the host country, no training, or very little research scholarships for PhD’s, and the tax payer, loses out short term, as well as long term, because they once again have to pay for the service/product their own tax payer education raised scientists developed.

    If Industry created the research establishments wholly without government subsidy or support (extremely unlikely, there’s always some tax concessions), then the research is mostly for the benefit of the industry, for the bottom line profit motive, IP locked away from the public sector and even other industries. Including as a mere ruse to stop competitors developing competing technology.

  38. So interesting Rajini Rao – I love how you use your G+ profile to give a voice to science and make things understandable for non-scientists like me. Thank you.

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    There have been some unsubstantiated comments made on the process of science research that I should clarify and challenge.

    Drew Sowersby has stated that PIs (principal investigators) are not held accountable for the funds they receive and the work they actually produce.  I’m not aware of a single funding agency that does not practice strict oversight. Anyone who has held a competitively-funded public grant (e.g., NIH, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society) knows that they all require annual progress reports citing peer reviewed publications and patents resulting from funds before the next year’s funds are released. Competitive renewal of grants is highly dependent on publication track record and past accomplishments in the previous funding cycle- many grant applications are turned down due to “modest progress”. Most biomedical research in the US is funded by the NIH. Success rates for NIH grants are currently in the 10% range (unfortunately), which means that only highly meritorious proposals from productive scientists with a strong track records are successful. (This is problematic in itself, hence efforts to increase public funding.) Most projects target difficult, serious disease-related problems that are by their very nature, technically and intellectually challenging. 

    The opinion that most research is simply not good, and goes mostly unchecked due to relatively easy entry into one journal or another should be taken in context. Journals have impact factors, and publications have citations: these should be used to gauge the quality and impact of the work. Turns out that people who publish in poor quality, often predatory journals, whose papers don’t get cited or have a significant impact on the field will eventually drop out of research. In contrast, a good paper takes a year and 2-3 revisions in response to multiple rejections to be published in a reputable, high impact journal. After publication, other scientists typically attempt to reproduce and extend a paper’s findings, resulting in further challenges, checks and  balances.  

    Apparently, the academic funding system is sickeningly inefficient and unproductive. I urge anyone with constructive suggestions for improving this academic funding system to write to federal and private funding agencies, publish a referenced review in a reputable journal, or an opinion piece in a widely-read news outlet. My only caveat is that you would need to be in a position of credibility with some scientific success (either in academia or industry; demonstrated by useful patents or highly cited publications or by starting a successful biotech industry or company) under your belt to be taken seriously, though. Otherwise, it comes across as a bad case of sour grapes. 

  40. tax of research is the solution this tax will be be taken in all product cars yacht…….x industry and trade

  41. Chad Haney says:

    Having written many grants and being funded by the NIH in the past, I have to echo what Rajini Rao said. You can cherry pick examples of fraud and poor research not the other way around, as was suggested. Some work is incremental but a lot of it is cutting edge and very challenging.

  42. Satyr Icon says:

    I have to agree with Drew Sowersby that the peer review system does have it’s weaknesses. Chief amongst them is it’s, … well, … networking. That is one can possibly have high citations just by publishing in journals in the right continent, or by having “friends” who cite you, or publishing mediocre articles after you have become notable.

    As far back as the ’50’s there were detractors of the peer review process. Eg Einstein who didn’t like an editors comment in a peer reviewed journal instead published in the journal of the Franklin Institute. At first I thought that was rather arrogant of hi, but then as a mere nobody I had people who contributed nothing towards a paper I was submitting demanding their names be put on as authors.

    Unfortunately I haven’t been in the research part of science for decades and don’t have any better ideas than peer review though.

  43. Rajini Rao says:

    As with all avenues of human endeavor, science has politics, cronyism and egotism. Peer review is based on very sound principles that can be subverted, but in the majority of cases works well. It’s certainly better than having politicians with no scientific expertise call out projects because they sound weird, which has happened in the past and still happens today. 

  44. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney , thanks. It seems only fair and logical that a person goes through trial by fire (aka, the peer review system of funding!) before casting aspersions on it. While I’m sick of the funding situation too, it’s for reasons of unnatural culling of good projects due to the severe funding crunch. I don’t blame the system, but the policies that restrict funds. 

  45. Chad Haney says:

    Yes, the system isn’t perfect but it shouldn’t be scrapped under the assumption that it produces junk research.

  46. Chad Haney says:

    One grant that I’m on that I’m excited about is for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s funded by the NIH and will hopefully lead to more research and eventually a cure. I can’t imagine not doing this preclinical work on mice, especially when you understand what AD does to not just patients but their loved ones as well.

  47. Rajini Rao says:

    Ooh, Chad Haney , we are starting research on endosomal and amyloid processing pathologies as early cellular events in Alzheimer’s disease as well. Our Na+/H+ exchanger genes (found by serendipity in yeast and plants, as you know) turn out to be emerging risk factors for AD. There is a link to the ApoE4 variant (most common risk for LOAD..late onset AD) that is particularly promising. Good luck with your project and wish me luck on our grant (due to be resubmitted) and our paper (out for review).  

  48. Chad Haney says:

    Good luck Rajini Rao although you don’t really need luck with such high caliber work. I hope we can collaborate when you are ready to start work on the early stage of AD.

  49. Rajini Rao says:

    Call me nerdy, but I am so excited that a pathologist is giving us brain tissue from people who had genetic predisposition to AD but showed no symptoms, to compare with those that did. Other colleagues are giving us mouse models of AD, so we can extend our work from cells in culture to animal models and patients. 

  50. Chad Haney says:

    Drew Sowersby funding work that only has a direct, immediate pay off is not big picture thinking, it’s shortsighted and myopic. Basic science research often has serendipitous moments by people in unrelated fields.

  51. Rajini Rao says:

    I’m going to have to block him, he has zero credibility with me, and comes in here to hijack threads with grandstanding, nonsensical arguments. 

  52. Charlie Hohn says:

    I believe Berndt Heinrich won a ” Golden Fleece ” for studying temperature regulation in bees. “Sticking a thermometer up bee butts”… Of course in retrospect as bees die and the pollination situation gets kind of scary, we see this kind of knowledge about bees is essential. He should have been given more funding not harassed about it.

  53. Charlie Hohn says:

    As for the idea that science should be “profitable”… Look. Not to get too political but I will just say that the current economic system is so broken that what is “profitable” does not make sense. It doesn’t value things that make our lives better. It does something else entirely. Me giving you a potato for an apple is very far removed from someone making billions of dollars digging up coal that makes other people sick and alters the climate.

  54. Rajini Rao says:

    Charlie Hohn your reference to Dr. Heinrich brought to mind the infamous statement by Sarah Palin dissing fruit fly research: I kid you not she said.  Palin hits fruit fly research but it has helped autism

  55. Rajini Rao you are so awesome. This discussion on your thread today should be a discussion all governments interested in progress should be engaging in. 

  56. Rajini Rao says:

    Thank you for the feedback, you’re too kind Rebecca Rippin ! I wish all scientists reached out to their neighbors, family and friends. We’d all be better off for it. 

  57. The neighbors, family, friends  (like me) would be better off for it too Rajini Rao – I agree that greater communication between science and society would be hugely beneficial for all.

  58. Bill Collins says:

    Oh for a world where we take the fruits of research and apply them carefully, if not lovingly. I feel as if the lessons of the past were half science and half bunkum. (E. G. My mother may or may not have massaged me in a cradle. I know not.) And yet to collate and compare and connect them all in one we have not done. 

    And should.

  59. Rajini Rao

    indeed the LAL test is not just used in hospitals. Woods Hole MBL which (I believe has licensed the production) also provides it to NASA for onboard testing of contamination (Morris et al., 2010, Astrobiology

  60. Rebecca Rippin  while govts. all over the world should be discussing it, its much more important for the common people to be discussing it. amongst the middle classes in many parts of the world, profit has become the “only” motive that “works”- so basic research shows no tangible profit. chuck it!

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    That’s an interesting tidbit of info on the LAL test for contamination, chaitanya athale . Are we worried about contamination leaving Earth or entering it? 🙂

    [I see the test is used on outbound spacecraft]

  62. Rajini Rao says:

    Today’s successful orbiting of Mars by Mangalyaan, the Indian Mars Mission brings up an interesting perspective: It cost less to reach Mars (75 million) than to make the movie “Gravity” ($100 million). So any time people say that there’s not enough money for research, we should remember this. It’s our priorities that are responsible, not our lack of funds. 

  63. Rajini Rao Well said, Rajini. It is absolutely true. Kudos goes to the sage who said, ‘where there is a will, there is a way.’

    It also shut up the critics who always tend to belittle these achievements by bringing poverty factor into this equation – quite unnecessarily – in order to let it be eclipsed.

  64. Came away from your “monarch” post firmly convinced that: not even Rajini Rao could write gooder, but after reading this post, I’m no longer sure. Thanks ScienceSunday ; without you I would have missed it.

  65. Rajini Rao says:

    How kind of you to say that, John Condliffe . Many thanks. I’ve not been posting lately and your comment inspires me to get back on track. 

  66. Rajini Rao Thank you Rajini for bringing this article to attention. I am happy to find one of the first scientific basis for infant massages so common in India. I always look forward to reading your blog and really enjoy your posts!

  67. Suresh Patel says:

    Message to infants is ancient Indian therapy going strong in small village from so many years

  68. Suresh Patel says:

    Incredible post that to many people will find out great benefits of massage infants. Wonderful information. JayGurudev

  69. Waddia S. says:

    Nice. They could have used better name, lol

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