The group of universities, scientific societies, industry groups, and think tanks behind the 2014 Golden Goose Awards announced winners throughout the summer and pioneering computing researcher Larry Smarr is one of the recipients. As we’ve noted in previous years, the Golden Goose Awards “demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.” Another way to describe the awards is they are to show what “silly-sounding science” has given back to the country, and that return on investment is often very big and unanticipated.
You can read in detail about Dr. Smarr’s award backstory on the Golden Goose Awards website, but the gist is that in the early 1980s Dr. Smarr was performing modeling of black hole collisions in space, a wholly curiosity driven area of research. The modeling requires massive computing power, something not readily available to the American university community. Smarr became a strong advocate that the country invest more in supercomputing infrastructure available to the academic community, who otherwise had to fight to get time on machines devoted to defense applications like nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. In response, the National Science Foundation established a set of university-based supercomputing centers for researchers across the country to use for their research purposes. These centers would form the basis of the NSFnet, one of the significant predecessors to the Internet (Smarr was a big proponent of establishing the NSFnet too). So, a curiosity about what happens when black holes collide helped unleash a revolution in computing power, computational science, and networking that, in turn helped establish visualization and modeling as drivers of scientific discovery (right alongside theory, observation and experiment) – not to mention the Internet as we know it, and the internet web browsers, both part of the success of the NSF supercomputing centers. And Larry Smarr had a key role in all of it.
The other recipients of the GGAs were a medical researcher team whose research into massaging rat pups led to treatments for premature infants, and a team of economists, whose research into auctions and game theory helped to raise billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury through the FFCC spectrum auctions. It’s almost sport in Washington to find silly-sounding award abstracts and use them as a cudgel to bash science agencies for spending money, but these award winners are excellent examples of why the Federal investment in fundamental research is so important to innovation, that it pays off in extraordinary ways, and that it’s not so easy to judge the value of the award by its subject (or by the one paragraph abstract that accompanies it).