On the sullied rolls of science bashers, the late William Proxmire is firmly established as a master by virtue of his Golden Fleece Awards, for government support of research projects deemed loony and wasteful by the Wisconsin Senator. But before legend surpasses reality, it might be useful to recognize that Proxmire, despite the distress he created among researchers, fired off relatively harmless potshots compared to the ideological assaults currently directed at the scientific enterprise.
Elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the vacancy created by the death of Joe McCarthy, Proxmire was a political loner, ignoring cues from the party leadership as he sallied forth on a variety of self-selected crusades. The trustworthy Almanac of American Politics described him as “perhaps the Senate’s leading penny pincher,” and as “uninterested in maintaining cordial relations with anyone.” He was an early and persistent opponent of the Vietnam War and a tireless, and eventually successful, champion for US ratification of the genocide convention, which he endorsed in every Senate session between 1967 and 1986, for a total of 3,211 speeches. Eclectic in his political choices, he was opposed to abortion rights. He was in the vanguard of the successful fight against a government financed supersonic commercial aircraft, a heartfelt project of the Nixon Administration. He publicized some of the Olympian excesses of defense contracting, including the $600 toilet seat. As chairman of the Banking Committee, he helped bail out the financially sinking Lockheed Corporation, forcing out the top management in the process. Proxmire financed his last two re-election campaigns, in 1976 and 1982, with a mere $200 of his own money, and declined or returned all campaign contributions. History records him as the first Senator to receive hair transplants. He underwent a face-lift, lived on a Spartan diet, and jogged daily to and from Capitol Hill — four miles each way through the streets of Washington. Among his many quirks, he stood — never sat — throughout all proceedings in the Senate chamber. “Maverick” and “eccentric” were often attached to his name. Upon his death in 2005, The New York Times noted that “Many of his colleagues thought that he was a self-centered grandstander.” In that respect he was not unique. But as the occupant of a Senate seat for over 32 years, Proxmire was never more than a minor figure in American politics, never a part of the Senate leadership or the author of major legislation.
Despite his endearing personal eccentricities, once gone from the Senate, Proxmire might have faded from memory and made little mark on the history books but for the Golden Fleece Awards. Delivered monthly from 1975 until Proxmire retired from the Senate in 1989, the awards drew wide attention by ridiculing strange-sounding, seemingly wasteful government projects. Typical among them was an NSF project titled “The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-worm Fly” and a Federal Highway Administration study of “Motorists’ Attitudes Toward Trucks.” Proxmire yukked it up with denunciations of studies of vegetarianism and research on bodily dimensions of airline stewardesses. Always on the lookout for laughs at the expense of government and strait-laced institutions, news organizations got a twofer in Proxmire’s pairing of ill-spent government money and nerdy scientists. The Senator announced the awards in barrages of press releases, supplemented by declarations on the Senate floor and in other forums. Late-night comics, including the king of them at the time, Johnny Carson, loved the stuff too.
The Washington science establishment was horrified by Proxmire’s clowning. Always insecure about the durability and growth of federal support for science, the mandarins regarded the denigrating “awards” as symptomatic of public indifference or hostility to research, with dire implications for political support of science. This was especially the case with the social and behavioral sciences, which were latecomers in federal R&D support and were considered suspect by the political right. Psychologist Richard Atkinson, the only social scientist among the 11 men and one woman who have served as NSF director, recalls that the Golden Fleece “was serious business for NSF … because it played havoc with the Foundation’s public image and relations with Congress.”
The Proxmire crisis eventually eased, partially because his clowning tactics became familiar and tiresome, but also because NSF — his major target in research — got wise about dealing with the Senator by screening research-project titles for ridicule potential. NSF never revealed the before and after titles, but I’ll guess that if a project was originally titled “Mating Habits of the Peach Borer,” NSF’s screeners would transform it to “Entomological Techniques for Enhancing Agricultural Productivity.”
Looking back on the Senator’s comedy routines, it’s evident that Proxmire cared nothing at all about science, the scientific method, or the role of science in society. He was an addicted penny pincher, righteously dedicated to parsimonious use of taxpayers’ money, no matter for what, research included. To his credit, he employed scholarly care in selecting and abusing his subjects, while others who have tried to emulate his attention-grabbing methods have stumbled on the details and ended up looking ridiculous. Take the case of then-US Representative Marshall “Mark” Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, who denounced NSF in 1998 for supporting a study of ATMs. The Congressman demanded, what business does NSF have studying automatic teller machines? The issue dissipated when NSF explained that ATM, in this instance, referred to asynchronous transfer modes, a computer term.
Today’s attacks on science emanate not from a political isolate, but from a broadly based, politically motivated assault on the validity, authority, and autonomy of science. From denials of global climate change to insistence on teaching “both sides” of the evolution “controversy” and restrictions on stem-cell research, the current attacks on science make Proxmire’s capers look like fun.