Appalling or Applicable?: The Golden Fleece Awards

 Democrat William Proxmire served as the US Senator from Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989.“[T]he biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending or waste.” ~ Senator William Proxmire, on the Golden Fleece Awards

It took him almost 20 years to innovate what became one of his greatest legacies: The Golden Fleece Awards, granted for  “the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending or waste.” His first Award was in March 1975, and he continued until 1988–and found much for fodder in those 13 years.

Science funding got slammed right off the bat. The very first award was to the National Science Foundation for funding a study, to the tune of $84,000, on why people fall in love. And he ended his long run with another one partially funded by the NSF (together with the National Institute of Mental Health, who will make several more appearances), on condemning the project entitled “Sexual Behavior of Japanese Quail Under Carefully Controlled Laboratory  Conditions.” Costing $107,000, the researchers claimed the study would help with understanding of how sexual habits matter in diseases like AIDS.

The Senator was not impressed. He said that how the sex lives of quail–Japanese quail, no less–

can help us understand and contain the epidemic of AIDS is beyond me.

But if for the moment they seem silly, that just puts them in fine company.

For example, also in 1975, the Federal Aviation Administration, that usually does us so proud, won for spending $57,800 on a study of the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. That, I must say, is hard to beat. But there are those who will try.

In late 1979 the Office of Education won for spending $219,592 to develop a “curriculum package” to teach college students how to watch television.  This, in my belief, should have been quite simple–I’m sorry I wasn’t called in on the project.

In 1979, again, the Pentagon ran a $3,000 study to determine if men in the military should carry umbrellas in the rain. And, to add insult to injury–I don’t even know the outcome.

For creativity, the project to construct an ancient Polynesian canoe to the tune of $2 million should win some extra ponts. The Hawaii`iloa was indeed built, clocking in at  57 feet, 17 thousand pounds of it. The purpose, claimed the study? To show how the first Hawaiians sailed to their new home. Some people are visual learners, I guess.

The US Department of Justice won for spending $27,000 to determine why prisoners want to get out of jail (for real).

In 1981, the Department of the Army spent $6,000 to prepare a 17-page document that tells the federal government how to buy a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. I’m still looking into this–it’s a story too good to pass up.

I would truly like to be able to stick up for mental health spending in this country, since it’s a matter close to my heart. But sometimes I’m challenged–particularly on the next  one.

$97,000 seem to have gone down the tubes in a 1978 18-month study of precisely what went on in a brothel. Now, not just any brothel, mind you. But a Peruvian one. It does boggle the American taxpayer mind. And they didn’t even have the experience of the President’s Secret Service to guide them, like they would have had they waited.

Run by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the study had a somewhat deceptively innocuous title, “Social Change in a Plural Society.” Proxmire, incensed, called it a “ridiculous. . .waste of the taxpayers’ money.” He added, in a burst of open-mindedness,

 I do not object if academic researchers want to study Peruvian brothels or even ancient Inca vestal non virgins. What I object to is the federal government paying for it.

But Pierre L. von der Berghe, the head researcher and a University of Washington sociologist, said he was “flattered” to win the Award. In fact, he said,

In academic circles, the Golden Fleece Award is the next best thing to the Pulitzer.

For the moment, I don’t want to think too hard about what that line means for government sending on research projects.

But it gets worse. Apparently the NIMH had no idea it was funding this study (honest). In the April, 1978 edition of the Indiana Gazette one can find the following alarming information:

But Van den Berghe’s attitude was not reflected by his sponsor, the National Institutes for Mental Health, which seemed perplexed about how it end ed up financing the project. “How would we know that a man went to a brothel in Peru?’ asked Joyce Lazar, an agency official.

She claimed there was nothing in any of the van den Berghe’s reports indicating that the research took place in a brothel.

The argument got even more perplexing, as Lazar claimed van den Berge refused to give the government copies of articles and books published as a result of the study. Van den Berghe himself claimed his research led to over a dozen articles on the relationship between the races in Peru.

Now the paper left it at that, but that’s clearly what happens when you live in an era before ‘Google Scholar.” Sure enough, the sociologist published a number of papers [I didn’t count 12 but who’s to quibble] on the subject of class in Peru–although a quick perusal of the abstracts doesn’t exactly highlight the word ‘brothel,’ for some reason. [His field research assistant, a George Primov, does get a publication that’s straight-up about where the researchers spent their taxpayer-funded time. He published “The Peruvian brothel as sexual dispensary and social arena,” in (where else?), the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pirmov made 20 visits to a brother in San Tutis to further the study. Nice job if you can get it.

******************************************************************************************************************************************Really, out of context, the spending is too easy to laugh at; it’s truly hard to contain yourself.

Proxmire seemed to have found a gold mine of humor and taxpayer rage in government-funded scientific research.

But at some point science fought back–and may have won, to some extent.

Back in 1980, the poor NIMH won the award for a study on on why bowlers and hockey  fans, and pedestrians smile. Robert Kraut, whose study it was, notes that in the press release the Senator remarked that he

 wasn’t bowled over by the research, puckish though it might have been.

But the story doesn’t end there. Kraut’s work ended up being published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (no-joking- journal impact factor of  5.035), with a relevant sociological finding. After researching primate smiling behavior (Van Hooff  1972), teh authors found that non-humans bare their teeth when with other members of their species to signal belonging and appeasement. Kraut’s bowling study confirmed similar behavior for humans. Writes Kraut,

humans are much more likely to smile when they are engaged in a social interaction with another person than they are when they are solitarily experiencing a pleasant emotion

The American Association for Psychological Science Observer notes that Proxmire

 did not realize when he presented the Golden Fleece Award to Kraut that this research provided a fundamental insight into one of the cross-cultural universals in human behavior, and that, in the process, it was among the first precursors to the field today known as Evolutionary Psychology.

Kraut proudly lists his Golden Fleece Award on his resume, to this day.


And let’s return to the much-maligned study of sex and Japanese quail.

When announcing the award Proxmire declared:

Let the Japanese study their own quail! 

Sure the Japanese quail looks innocent--but what a ruckus he's caused.

Catchy, I must say–but a little beside the point.

Turns out, according to people in the know in this area [see  “Visual Control of Sexual Behavior” in the text Avian Cognition], that Japanese quail are ideal for studying human sexual behavior because “they have a well-adapted visual system with which to gather information about the environment for potential mating opportunities.” In case you missed it, that’s precisely what humans have–and why Michael Domjan, the head of the study, felt the research was applicable. All researchers of the birds–and there have been more than you might expect–understood that the quail are useful in “study[ing] many diseases that affect human health” (Poynter 2009).

In fact, Domjan’s “Sexual Pavlovian conditioned approach behavior in male Japanese quail” was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology and has over 89 cites.

Despite the humor of the funding title, Domjan’s interest was actually in studying behavior mechanisms–which he did. It was just that the juxtaposition of that with the words ‘sex’ and ‘Japanese quail’ did him no service.


The public must have been tickled pink when the Golden Fleece was awarded to a $250,000 study of screwworm mating habits.

That study had long legs, as  Allie Grasgreen wrote:

The screwworms scored the cover story for the January 2011 issue. “Sex and the  Screwworm,” the headline reads, “Your tax dollars go to study the sex life of a  parasite, Congress wants to know why.”

But a group called the  Association of American Universities (AAU) begin putting out a in 2011 issues of the “Scientific Enquirer,” defending government funding for research  that may seem preposterous, but is in fact productive. And who should appear in the first issue, but our much-maligned screwworms?

According to the AAU:

screwworm research, as it happens, led to the flesh-eating parasite’s  eradication in the United States. Screwworms had killed millions of cattle  annually; their elimination saved the country $20 billion and resulted in a 5  percent reduction in supermarket beef prices.

Who knew?

Proxmire apologized.


People are complex. The Senator, who so strongly believed in government thrift, spent notoriously little in his re-election campaigns.

Of his own funds he was perhaps less scrupulous–and showed an involvement with his appearance unusual in those days and times. He was the first Senator ever to receive a hair transplant and a face-lift.

I bet a good taxpayer-funded scientific study would have a lot to say about that. And researchers might have understood it even better from a Peruvian brothel.

Leave a Reply