Good on Tennessee, for the Golden Goose

The state of Tennessee has not exactly racked up its pro-science credentials over the last 90 years. To start off, in 1925 the Butler Act was passed, which banned the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools, leading to the  Scopes Trial (one of last century’s many “trials of the century”). It wasn’t until 1967 when Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, and in 1968 the SCOTUS declared in Epperson versus Arkansas that these types of laws violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution which mandates the separation of church and state. That was 40 years ago, yet the saga of teaching evolution in Tennessee schools continues, as last month the governor of Tennessee allowed to pass a “Monkey Bill” law that lets teachers present evolution and global warming as controversial topics (even though they are based on scientifically sound principles). Boo!

Tennessee is not alone, and we know about the anti-intellectualism that occupies the current political zeitgeist, which also has roots further back in time. In the 1960s Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire was famous for handing out the Golden Fleece Award in his monthly press releases, which documented what he considered to be reckless government spending on silly scientific pursuits. This was echoed recently when last year Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma made a big deal about what he thought to be dumb scientific mental masturbation wasting taxpayer money, such as the now famous “shrimp on a treadmill” which was funded by a $500,000 NSF grant. Never mind the treadmill itself was hand-built by the P.I. for $1,000, a small part of his study of commercially important species and how they are affected by water quality. But why would a politician actually want to learn about the science he is lambasting, when he could just gorge on the political points scored when the media dives for his soundbite? The senator’s side of the story was taken up without scrutiny by major news outlets such as here, here, and here. Boo!

Although politically there seems to be some anti-science sentiment in the city halls, legislatures and governors mansion of Tennessee, the state’s Wildlife Resources Agency and Game and Fish Commission are unequivocally dedicated to scientific research. The folks working in those offices were extremely helpful when I had to acquire the proper scientific collecting permits for my field work. I knew these scientists and administrators were not the only reasonable Tennesseans.

You can count congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) as one of them. His idea, announced this week with an alliance of congressional representatives, universities, and science and policy organizations, is the Golden Goose Award, which will honor obscure yet federally-funded research that leads to important breakthroughs.

Here are some rare reasonable soundbites to gorge on.

Jim Cooper on his Golden Goose Award:

It recognizes that a valuable federally funded research project may sound funny, but its purpose is no laughing matter.


Federal support for basic scientific research creates jobs, fosters innovation, and improves the American people’s quality of life.


Research supported by the federal government has led to remarkable breakthroughs and valuable scientific developments that affect our lives on a daily basis.


Science plays an important role in our economy, as many jobs in this field go unfilled. We must continue to invest in this field and similar fields so that more people have the resources they need to find a job.

Nice words, Congressman. Tennessee should be proud to have you.

Cooper may be my favorite Tennessean, after Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Booker T. Jones, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chet Atkins, Cormac McCarthy, Dolly Parton, George Hamilton, Isaac Hayes, Jack Daniel (yes THAT Jack Daniel), Oscar Robertson, Quentin Tarantino, Rufus Thomas, Samuel Jackson, Sam Phillips, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tina Turner (I picked these from here). Sorry, Jim Cooper. You’re tops with me, but you have to get in line.


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