09/18/2015 04:37 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016

A Golden Goose, Cats Chasing Lasers and Massachusetts

What does the love life of screwworm flies have to do with anything? Well, a lot actually. Screwworm flies can infect and quickly decimate cattle populations. Researchers in the early 1980's found that sterilized male screwworms would sterilize the female worms, quickly inhibiting an entire worm population from reproducing. While the value of this work was initially mocked, this federally-funded research saved the livestock industry billions of dollars by eliminating the screwworm fly from all U.S. cattle.

It also sparked the idea to honor quirky-sounding basic science research that has impacted society. The result - the Golden Goose Awards. While the direct value of basic science research may not be apparent from reading the title of a study, it is important to recognize that economic growth in the United States has been driven by this country's top-notch research and innovation activities.

Last week in Washington D.C., the fourth annual Golden Goose Award Ceremony celebrated three new scientific success stories. These awards recognize quirky-sounding scientific research that has significantly increased knowledge and impacted society. This year, in a scientific sweep, all three of the Golden Goose Awards include scientists from Massachusetts.

One of the awards was given to Dr. Philip Peake, Professor of Psychology at Smith College in Northampton, along with Dr. Walter Mischel and Dr. Yuichi Shoda, who constituted the original research team that developed the "Marshmallow Test" to study delayed gratification.

In this test, a child was offered a choice between one small reward, often a marshmallow, provided immediately, or two small rewards if they waited for a short period during which the child was left alone. The test makes for great videos, but Dr. Peake and his colleagues also made significant discoveries about how and when children develop self-control, and later found correlations between self-control at a young age and success as an adult. These breakthroughs in understanding human development and self-control have led to changes in society's approach to things like parenting, education, maintaining good health, and saving for retirement.

Another award was granted to neurophysiologists Drs. David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who conducted research on the brain with support from the National Institutes of Health and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. During an experiment studying how cats track light, the researchers made a mistake that led them to a new discovery. This accidental insight opened the door for innovative brain research that has helped children with vision problems and is now influencing machine vision, which is projected to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry in the next few years. The hilarity of cats chasing lasers draw millions of views on YouTube, but Drs. Hubel and Torsten's cat experiment is no joke.

The third award was granted to Dr. Joel Cohen, a mathematical population biologist at Harvard University, and Dr. Christopher Small, a geophysicist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, for their research on hypsographic demography - the study of how human populations are distributed around the world with respect to altitude. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. An original collaboration to study the impact of sea level rise and other natural disasters on low-altitude populations yielded important insights on how best to prepare for disasters in low-lying regions, where one third of the Earth's population lives. Drs. Cohen and Small's work has since had a big impact on many companies, including Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble and Intel, informing market research and manufacturing design. Collectively, this broad work has touched many industries, impacted billions of dollars in sales, and improved quality of life for communities across the globe.

The Golden Goose Awards bring attention to a very important issue: basic science research leads to discoveries that cannot be predicted and that lead to life-changing results. I agree with the Founding Organizations of the Golden Goose Award that "federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security."

Since federal funding of basic research in the United States has declined in recent years while other countries like China have ramped up federal research efforts, it is vitally important to boost our federal research investments. That's why I continue to call for an increased level of federal research dollars for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other key agencies. Massachusetts has a rich research ecosystem. I am proud that researchers from Smith College and Harvard University are being honored for their contributions to the scientific foundation on which this country thrives. Once again, I congratulate the 2015 Golden Goose Awardees and hope this annual ceremony will keep inspiring lovers of science to pursue their passions, even if the topics sound a little quirky.