Politicians, anxious to position themselves as fiscally responsible, sometimes find convenient targets in basic research – the foundational studies that often need to take place well before practical applications. “Look what the government is funding,” they’ll procalim, while pointing to obscure research projects that can, to the general public, sound like a waste of time. Some might be, but some others lead to discoveries that really matter.
Back in the 1950s, when two USDA scientists were studying the sex life of the screwworm fly, their research easily could have been subjected to ridicule from pandering D.C. politicians. But this week, the work of those researchers, the late Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland, earned the Golden Goose Award, which recognizes research that might have appeared frivolous but yielded valuable results.
Screwworms, as you might recall, were a scourge to cattle through the first half of the 20th Century, and they were no picnic for humans either. Screwworms are the parasitic larvea of the screwworm fly, Cochliomyia hominivorax. The fly lays its eggs on cattle or other animals, typically on or near an open wound. The larvae hatch and burrow into the animal’s flesh, where they feed until pupating and emerging as adults. Beef and dairy losses to screwworms in the United States averaged an estimated $200 million annually in the 1950s. Chemical controls helped, but were not adequate to truly control screwworm fly populations.
Through their work on the basic biology of adult flies, Knipling and Bushland developed a way to sterilize large numbers of male flies, leaving them healthy enough to mate but resulting in the female’s eggs being non-fertile. Their sterile insect technique (SIT), which uses low levels of radiation on male flies which are then released into the wild, eventually led to eradication of the screwworm fly in the United States in 1966. Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua soon followed and were able to eradicate the pests using the SIT technology.
According to a Live Science article, entomologists have since used the SIT to help control several types of insect pests in agriculture, and the technique currently is being tested for use in controling the mosquitos that carry the Zika virus.
Knipling and Bushland’s work now is considered one of the most significant developments in the field of entomology. In addition to this year’s Golden Goose, the pair received the World Food Prize in 1992. Detailed profiles and outlines of their work are available on the World Food Prize website.
The Golden Goose Award, by showcasing the value of research that might, on the surface, appear pointless, aims to counter policically motiated attacks on science, such as the congressional “Golden Fleece Award.”