This year, three projects were awarded the Golden Goose Award. These are awarded to federally funded basic research projects that have widespread impacts. The awards are made to underscore the need for funding for basic research at a level that is best supported by the federal government. What this means to us, as the people ultimately providing that funding, is that we get a great return from some unexpected places.
This year, one of the recipients was the “marshmallow test.” Avid readers of this site will immediately recognize this test as one that was covered here in 2014. Basically, this test was designed to assess an individual’s self control. Children were the subjects and marshmallows the vehicle for this determination. The findings were that those children who could wait for the marshmallow were those who could use the “cool” side of their brains to deal with the temptation. How? By distracting themselves through activity or thought about the future – ultimately strategies that can be taught rather than something one is born with.
Another of the recipient projects was exploring the ways in which a cat’s brain responds to visual stimuli. A mistake – pushing a slide so that it showed a line instead of a point – resulted in increased activity in the cat’s cortical brain cells. This lead to better treatments in children born with cataracts, as well as other applications.
The third project had to do with determining how many people live at every elevation above sea level. Sounds like the sort of poking around that would ultimately result in a blooper reel. However, it turns out the results had significant application to a number of real-world problems. For one, it shows that more than a third of the world’s population lives within 300 feet of sea level. Not surprising if you consider the need for access to the sea in earlier generations but not so great for current populations facing rising sea levels.
The study also found that most of the people living that close to sea level lived in less-populated areas – not so great for timely disaster response. The research spawned a new method of assessing demographics – hypsographics – with implications for commercial purposes and medical research.
All in all not a bad haul from research that was funded by the federal government for what is often scorned as a mere boondoggle. Not surprising that in science as in life, curiosity often leads to discoveries with far-reaching potential. Discoveries that can best be described as serendipitous!