Boston — For the past seven years, Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin has ridiculed research he considers a waste of tax money. But a check on many science projects that earned his ''Golden Fleece Award'' shows that some may be winners after all.
For example, some of the projects have resulted in discovering biological roots of aggression related to drinking alcohol and increasing understanding of lunar and earth geology.
Practically every month since 1975, Senator Proxmire has protested what he calls government waste and inefficiency by bestowing a ''Fleece'' on a federal agency that has sponsored a project he considers ''absurd or ridiculous or wasteful or a low priority'' for government spending.
Most awards are for nonscientific programs, and some are critical of such costs as staff perquisites, cost overruns, and hidden expenditures. Some of these awards have doubtless thrown the spotlight on some questionable research projects.
David Keating, the legislative director of the National Taxpayers' Union, says that Golden Fleece awards have ''great value'' in showing how ''ridiculous the federal government can get when spending taxpayers' dollars.''
But a number of scientists contend that the senator's awards for scientific projects sometimes miss the mark.
The senator and his staff members reject suggestions that they have been unduly hard on scientific researchers. Indeed, notes Morton Schwartz, a legislative assistant for Proxmire, the Department of Defense has received the ''overwhelming'' number of Golden Fleeces. ''There is not an anti-science bias in this office . . . virtually every department has received a Fleece,'' he says.
Proxmire says he believes his staff has been ''very fair'' in evaluating scientific research that has been the target of Fleeces, although two years ago he had to retract erroneous statements to settle a libel suit brought by a scientist whose work had been the topic of a Fleece.
The senator also comments, ''It's hard to know when (science projects) are going to come to fruition.''
The executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), William D. Carey, says he supports Senator Proxmire's Fleeces to the extent that they increase scientists' and agencies' concern about accountability. But he says that he thinks the senator ''has missed the mark'' with most of the science projects that have been the target of Golden Fleeces.
Dorothy Nelkin, a Cornell University sociology professor who studies science and society, says she thinks the process of awarding Golden Fleeces is flawed.
''I don't think, that except for a laugh in the newspaper, the Proxmire (award) is a useful approach to pointing out waste,'' she says. Although Professor Nelkin says Proxmire makes a point about waste, she comments that the scientific community does ''relatively well in self-monitoring'' its research and the Fleeces can be a ''form of harassment.''
Researchers whose studies have been the subject of Fleece awards protest that Proxmire has assailed many projects prematurely. Scientific findings usually require a number of years to result in practical products, they note. Many researchers also charge that the senator has oversimplified or misrepresented research goals to give a witty, sometimes biting tone to his press releases, which are widely distributed among the media.
One scientist critical of the award is Dr. Elaine Hatfield, now chairwoman of the psychology department at the University of Hawaii.
In 1975, her work on the family and other loving relationships was the subject of a Fleece awarded to the National Science Foundation (NSF). She says she believes that the senator was poking fun at scientists studying love. But Dr. Hatfield asserts that the need to understand what holds families together has become critical as the divorce rate has escalated in recent years. She also says that family counseling methods have been changed in this decade, partly because of her findings and those of other workers in her field.
From her research, Dr. Hatfield and her co-worker published more than 20 scientific articles in reputable journals. Dr. Hatfield and her colleague also wrote a popular book, The New Look at Love, which is slated for its third printing this month. In 1978, the American Psychological Association lauded the text for outstanding, accurate reporting.
The scientist's output from the NSF grant does not stop here. She has also contributed to a National Academy of Sciences text on aging, and says she is writing another article for a lay audience.
Several authorities in Dr. Hatfield's field, who asked not to be named, differ in their opinions of the value of her work. While one says the scientist ''has made extremely useful contributions,'' another says that the work is disputed among colleagues. Similarly, one researcher calls The New Look at Love ''very well-written,'' but another says he is ''not that impressed with it.''
Many of the other scientists whose work was the subject of a Fleece point to productive results from their research, although their work was often shortened by agencies hesitant to continue or renew funds after earning a Fleece.
A sample of the projects that have been the basis of Fleeces and their results to date includes:
* A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-sponsored project on aggressive behavior in fish after imbibing alcohol. The work was inspired by estimates that 75 percent of all violent crimes are linked to alcohol. The researcher, Dr. Harman Peeke, medical psychology professor at the University of California at San Francisco, argues that fish were the only practical and ethically acceptable subjects to use. He says he discovered that, following alcohol intake, the fish confused behavior that was merely threatening with actual aggression. While Dr. Peeke says he couldn't generalize about human behavior from his experiments with fish, he says he thought the results justified further studies, this time with humans. But when the Fleece came, further work was cut short. Dr. Burr Eichelman, associate psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin's medical school, says that his impression of Dr. Peeke's research is that of ''bona fide scientific work.'' Studying how animals behave after imbibing alcohol, Dr. Eichelman says, can lead to new questions about aggression in human alcoholics.
* A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) decision to build a storm-proof, moisture-proof, and oxygen-proof facility for ''moon rocks'' that cost $2.8 million. The facility ensures that minute amounts of elements come from the moon rather than from earth contamination, according to Dr. John W. Dietrich, NASA assistant curator. Through work in the laboratory, scientists have increased their understanding of lunar and earth geology.
Dr. Edward David, president of Exxon Research and Engineering Co. and past science adviser to former President Richard M. Nixon, says the research that has taken place in the facility has many practical applications, including mineral exploration. He calls the laboratory ''an absolute necessity for evaluating (rocks) that were brought back from the moon at great expense to the country.'' The money spent for the facility, according to Dr. David, has been ''very, very well spent.''
Some of the findings that have surfaced so far are best categorized as pure research lacking current application. Such is the case with the information on lunar geology. Dr. Richard Williams, a geochemist with NASA, defends federal support of such primary work. He says that pure research plays a critical role in practical science, explaining that basic studies on air and fuel mixtures had to precede the development of the carburetor.
The research now considered impractical may be critical when applications arise in several years, says Dr. Dietrich. Studies of lunar geology will be necessary prerequisites for building future facilities on the moon's surface, he explains.
Dr. Peeke also argues for basic research. He suggests that those donating or granting money should not have to demand practical answers from all scientific research. This is ''a real bad way to push science. The Russians would be way ahead of us'' if the US government did not fund pure research, says Dr. Peeke. ''We would never have gotten to the moon if we tried to build a rocket in 1930, '' he says.
Mr. Carey, of AAAS, says that the US must pursue basic research. ''Without the government's willingness to support (pure research), in basic financial limits, it wouldn't be done at all,'' he says.
Proxmire says he has no objection to pure research.
Some of the research efforts that were the targets of Golden Fleece awards have not resulted in innovative findings either of a pure or applied nature. For example, a USDA study on hog productivity that was the subject of a 1978 Fleece found that hog farmers shouldn't alter their current breeding methods. But the project's researcher, Dr. Otho M. Hale, an animal scientist at the University of Georgia, defends this result. He suggests that scientific objectivity is ruined when researchers try to obtain predetermined results.
Dr. Joel M. Hanna, a physiology professor at the University of Hawaii who also conducted a study that was the target of a Fleece, says the senator ridicules the wrong projects because these studies have already passed stringent tests by scientists working in appropriate fields. Proxmire ignores the peer review process, or professional evaluations, used for making grants, says Dr. Hanna.
Some researchers argue that they could have explained the value of their work to the senator, but were not given the chance until the Fleece decision had already been made. And some say they wonder about the qualifications of those asked by the senator's office to evaluate their work.
According to Schwartz, Senator Proxmire's aide, Fleece candidates are studied by the senator's staff members. The longest time yet for evaluating a project has been 40 hours, he estimates. Some project evaluations require far less time, but evaluations ''can't be quickly tossed off,'' he says.
Proxmire says, ''We try to get all the relevant facts.''
Scientists in the field are asked to evaluate technical aspects, according to Schwartz. ''We have various kinds of contacts - personal and professional,'' he says.
Before giving a Fleece to an agency, the senator's office asks the agency to defend the project, Schwartz says, and the justification is included with press releases on the Fleece.
One researcher, Dr. Ronald Hutchinson, president of the Foundation for Behavioral Research in Michigan, learned who evaluated his work when he sued Proxmire for libel in a case that went to the US Supreme Court before it was settled out of court. The experimental psychologist did not work in the same branch of the field, but he was a friend of Schwartz.
Proxmire says that this scientist was not the only person his office consulted before awarding the Fleece to the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and NASA, who co-sponsored Dr. Hutchinson's work.
The other evaluations came from experts contacted by or working with the sponsoring agencies. According to Schwartz's testimony, all the appraisals, including that from the experimental psychologist, were generally favorable.
But Proxmire testified that he did not find out what the agencies' responses were, saying, ''Frankly, my function as a legislator is to be ciritical of these agencies and not to accept their evaluation."
This lawsuit resulted in an outcry after critics pointed out that the Senate paid Proxmire's legal fees of almost $125,000. Following publicity, the senator offered to give the Treasury Deprtment his proceeds from an upcoming bok and earnings from speaking engagements relating to the Fleece awards. Two years later, Proxmire says he has given because he does not keep records, and "is trying to continue" donating money.
Although the lawsuit resulted in Proxmire recanting some of his statements about Dr. Hutchinson's research, the the senator today says that his staff has done a "very fair" job evaluating the researchers' work that was the subject of Fleeces.
"I think, on the basis of the record we've had, it's been successful," he says.
But the researchers disagree. They point to a new record: seven years after the awards began, they say, the body of useful information from the work is starting to grow.