What Proxmire's Golden fleece Did For--And To--Science

In early 1975, psychologist Ronald Hutchinson was proceeding smoothly with studies investigating why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws. The work, bankrolled to the tune of $500,000 by several federal agencies over a decade, had placed Hutchinson at the forefront of research into the biological causes of aggression. But that April, a fiscally conscious legislator from Wisconsin skewered the research with a “Golden Fleece Award,” the second ever, designed to he bestowed mon

Robert Irion
Dec 11, 1988

In early 1975, psychologist Ronald Hutchinson was proceeding smoothly with studies investigating why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws. The work, bankrolled to the tune of $500,000 by several federal agencies over a decade, had placed Hutchinson at the forefront of research into the biological causes of aggression.

But that April, a fiscally conscious legislator from Wisconsin skewered the research with a “Golden Fleece Award,” the second ever, designed to he bestowed monthly upon the agency responsible for “the most outrageous example of federal waste.” And over the next two years, Hutchinson’s grantors pulled out their funding, one by excruciating one.

So began Senator William Proxmire’s tempestuous relationship with scientists, a relationship that may end this month with the 73-year-old Democrat’s retirement. Although citizens of every bent lauded most of Proxmire’s fleeces for the rest of Washington’s bureaucratic money sieves, many scientists feel that when Proxmire picked on academia, his diatribe did more harm than good.

The results, they claim, included misrepresented research, ruined projects, and a public increasingly alienated from a scientific community that supposedly squanders tax dollars.

“There is so much overkill, so much unsupported buffoonery in his approach, that it certainly chilled the very community of scientists and science administrators that might have responded to a more reasoned approach,” says psychologist Hutchinson. “Proxmire has simply used the Golden Fleece and similar sorts of bombast to maintain his name in front of the public.”

Budget Control

Nevertheless, science funding agencies did note Proxmire’s activities. As chairman for many years of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, he wielded considerable control over most federal research budgets.

Proxmire awarded his first Golden Fleece to the National Science Foundation in March 1975 for spending $84,000 to study why people fall in love. Taxpayers howled, and the senator’s fledgling publicity stunt was an instant media sensation.

With a captive audience, Proxmire upped the ante with his second fleece and lambasted NSF, NASA, and the Office of Naval Research for financing Hutchinson’s was respected research at Kalama zoo State Hospital in Michigan. “The funding of this nonsense makes me almost angry enough to scream and kick or even clench my jaw,” Proxmire wrote in a scathing press release. “The good doctor has made a fortune from his monkeys and in the process made a monkey out of the American taxpayer.” To Proxmire’s dismay, Hutchinson kicked back.

In a $6 million lawsuit that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Hutchinson charged Proxmire with defamation, invasion of privacy, loss of income, and infliction of mental cruelty. In 1979, before the Court was to hear the case, Proxmire settled for $10,000, plus a far-reaching apology on the Senate floor.

After that, Proxmire’s press releases omitted the names of all researchers. Also, the pace of science fleeces slowed, from three or four per year in the 1970s to about one per year in the 1980s. Otherwise, Proxmire’s run-in with Hutchinson did little to sway his general approach toward criticizing science.

Of the more than 150 Fleeces Proxmire issued, some two dozen concerned science—mostly social science. Among the more infamous cases

" Proxmire handed the so-called award to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1975 for funding a study on alcohol and aggression in fish and rats, stating that” ... the most effective way to understand human conditions and problems is to observe human behavior.”

“I would really enjoy having Proxmire make a proposal to give people alcohol and ask them to fight,” says University of California, San Francisco, psychobiologist Harman Peeke, whose project was halted midstream by the fleece. ‘That’s simply unethical and immoral.”

" In 1978, Proxmire scored NSF for a $405,000 grant to develop a six-legged robot at Ohio State University, noting that it belonged on the football field under coach Woody Hayes. A month later, the “Bionic Bug” research led directly to the design of a computer-controlled prosthetic knee joint " A 1976 fleece went to NSF for a $46,100 study of “the effect of scantily clad women on the behavior of Chicago’s male drivers.” The study actually concerned the roles of hot summers in urban rioting.

Psychologist Robert Baron, now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, admits to the scantily-clad-women experiment, but claims it was a “lark.” “Proxmire took a tiny piece of our work, about 2% of our efforts, and created the impression that it was the entire research project,” Baron says.

" The National Institute of Mental Health endured a 1978 fleece for a $97,000 grant that financed, in part, a study of a Peruvian house of ill repute. But anthropologist Pierre van den Berghe of the University of Washington contends that the brothel research required perhaps only $100 and took up just one paragraph in his 325-page final report of cultural friction in the Andes.

“Proxmire is a clownish version of Joe McCarthy, with the same kind of Midwestern, anti-intellectual politics,” says Van den Berghe.Van den Berghe claims that his subsequent proposals to NSF and the Fulbright Foundation to return to Peru were rejected for political reasons.

But not all scientists felt their reputations had been damaged. “People rallied to my defense,” says RPI’s Baron. ‘They started to realize that if Proxmire gave the fleece to one serious scientist in the field, he’d give it to anybody.” Carrie Douglass, whose NSF-sponsored research on the political significance of bullfighting in Spain was gored by Proxmire in 1987, tells of similar support from colleagues. Some even suggested that she write “Banned in Wisconsin” on the cover of the book that will result from her work.

“I didn’t feel threatened, and I don’t think anybody took him seriously,” says Douglass, who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia after finishing her project. “I actually felt like the senator and his staff were making fools out of themselves. I was embarrassed for them.”

While the award may not affect scientists’ prestige in their fields, the most recent science “fleecee,” psychologist Michael Domjan of the University of Texas at Austin, reports of a more insidious danger.

“The fleece hasn’t shaken my confidence in the value of my research, but it has affected my confidence in being able to present it in a convincing and effective way,” says Domjan, singled out in March 1988 for his NSF- and NIMH-supported research on the sexual behavior of Japanese quail. “My work was ridiculed in the press,” he says, “and that can’t help but affect me.”

Proxmire occasionally retracts a fleece if support for the research is particularly strong. For instance, he criticized NASA in 1978 for its $14 million-to-$15 million proposal to scan the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial life, suggesting that the study be postponed “for a few million light years.”

‘Deep Misunderstanding’

“He showed a really deep misunderstanding of the universe,” says astronomer Frank Drake of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Drake nominated Proimire for membership in the Flat Earth Society, stating, “When Christopher Columbus left Spain, there was no evidence the New World existed, let alone Wisconsin.”

Three years later, after blue-ribbon panel recommendations from NSF and the International Astronomical Union, plus an hour’s lobbying by Carl Sagan, Proximire quietly withdrew his opposition to the research.

Scientists complain that neither Proximire nor his aides—who investigate potential fleeces—are qualified to determine whether a particular research effort is worthwhile. They theorize that Proxmire’s aides, unable to comprehend the complex language of “hard science” grants, look for sensationalistic titles among the more accessible social science proposals—titles such as “Food Preferences and Social Identity,” “Effects of Orthodontia on Psychosocial Functioning,” and “Bullfights and the Ideology of the Nation in Spain.”

Proxmire absolutely denies this. “We try very hard to get behind the title and find out exactly what’s being done,” he says. “We get an explanation from the agency itself take that to other experts, and discuss it with them. We have people on the staff who’ve specialized in this long enough that they have pretty good judgment, and we rely on that.

“I think it’s perfectly proper to criticize our capability and our competence to make that judgment,” Proxmire adds. “But we have the responsibility of voting for federal funds, so I think we also have the responsibility of overseeing them to see that they’re not wasted.”

Proxmire bristles at the suggestion that he does not support basic research that may seem “impractical” to the layperson. “Even if you don’t get a return for many years, if you can make the basic research breakthroughs, they’ve turned out to be invaluable again and again,” he says.

Joel Widder, senior analyst for legislative affairs at NSF, supports that part of Proxmire’s claim. “He understands and appreciates the investment in basic research,” Widder says. “I’m convinced of that after seeing him over the last couple of years.”

But Widder disapproves of the overall thrust of the Golden Fleece Awards: “Making fun of science in general, especially when it’s taken out of context, seems detrimental to what might be a long-term national goal: To try to develop, educate, and train additional people in scientific fields.”

“I think it’s partly the science community’s fault,” says Widder, “Since often scientists are unable to coherently explain the value of a particular project in terms that would make sense to a layperson.”

Eleanor Friedenburg, acting director of extramural activities at NIMH, reflects the same ambivalence. “The Golden Fleece Awards have been a safeguard, part of our checks-and-balances system,” she says. “But I’m also concerned that both sides should get full hearings. Taxpayers need the opportunity to hear the scientists’ side of the issue.”

Proxmire hints that he may continue the Golden Fleece Awards as a private citizen next year. And while there is some evidence that he was indeed poking fun at science (he says he once resisted—barely— fleecing the Department of Agriculture for developing a bean that would not create flatulence), his overall hope is that his fleeces have helped those in government get their priorities straight.

“We certainly need something like a taxpayer’s watchdog,” he says. “We don’t pretend to always be right, but I think we’ve been right most of the time. To err is human, and I hope we get divine forgiveness for the times that we’ve been wrong.”

Robert W. Irion is a freelance science writer in Santa Cruz, Calif.