The 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research last week. The prizes claim to feature “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.” They are good at the first part, counterproductive on the last.
Headlines about “Goofy Science,” “Pointless Research” and “Silly Science” stop short of exploring the merit of the funny-sounding projects without stimulating real curiosity about science and engineering. This merely fuels the bonfires of anti-intellectual and anti-government-funded-research zealots. When Sir Robert May claimed the Ig Nobels put continued funding of genuine experiments at risk through shallow ridicule, he had a point, but he was ridiculed himself.
This anti-science comedic concept is firmly established in U.S. politics. The late Senator William Proxmire entertained the press with his annual “Golden Fleece” award, though one of these projects earned the so-called “fleecers” the real Nobel Prize. In the last U.S. Presidential campaign, Senator John McCain identified federally-funded studies of grizzly bear DNA as frivolous pork instead of meaningful research. The Senator somehow forgot that he voted for the measure, and his running mate got Federal earmarks for Alaska seal and crab DNA research. Mrs. Palin ridiculed “French fruit fly” experiments, probably referring to USDA research on control of olive fruit flies, (Bactrocera oleae) which cost California farmers millions each year. That sounds a lot funnier from Alaska.
Legislators are clearly unqualified to judge the validity of scientific research. Since Newt Gingrich dissolved the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, they are informed by industry lobbyists and university researchers begging for earmarks. Federal agencies that support scientific research through peer-reviewed grants are woefully underfunded, and the superficial press coverage doesn’t help.
Which brings us back to the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize Awards: