For years, one of the lesser honors bestowed on American scientists has been the "Golden Fleece of the Month" of Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, given for projects deemed a silly waste of tax money. Now the feisty senator has had to back down a bit.
He has settled a libel suit brought against him by an outraged awardee, psychologist Ronald Hutchinson. This is no minor political incident, for, in the legal maneuvering leading to the settlement, the US Supreme Court ruled last year that a senator's press releases and his statements made off the Senate floor are subject to the libel law.
Usually, the "Fleece" lands on hapless scientists whose work, regardless of scholarly merit, makes no sense to Proxmire's office. It is been used to denigrate research on climatic history in Africa, even though this has a direct bearing on understanding world weather. It has pilloried study of religious fanaticism in Asia -- a subject on which the US government now wishes it had been better informed. And, in Hutchinson's case, it was given to ridicule work on symptoms of aggressive behavior, including teeth-clenching in monkeys. Such research "should make the taxpayers as well as monkeys grit their teeth," the Golden Fleece announcement said with characteristic panache.
While scientists have been insulted by such thoughtless barbs, the greatest continuing damage has been sustained by federal funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation. Irrational fear has undercut sound judgment in supporting science. "Will this play for Proxmire?" has at times been as important a concern as whether or not a project were intrinsically worth pursuing.
Thus, "Fleece" awardees such as Hutchinson sometimes found their research funds drying up, even though their professional peers saw the merit of what they were doing. This amounts to a mismanagement of federal support for scientific research that is far more corrosive than any of the illusory boondoggles at which Proxmire has tilted.
Hutchinson and Proxmire have settled their dispute for $10,000 plus $5,400 court costs. That doesn't cover Hutchinson's full costs. But Proxmire's correction of factual errors on the Senate floor, along with acknowledgement that others see value in Hutchinson's work, is a moral victory. Proxmire also told the Senate "my policy is not, nor will it be, to prejudge or censor any application for a federal grant."
Be that as it may, he seems unreformed. He recently gave the Golden Fleece for a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study "why bowlers, hockey fans, and pedestrians smile." He should have accepted the award himself. The Senate picked up $124,351 of Proxmire's legal defense costs.