Golden Fleece Award

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William Proxmire issued the dubious honor 168 times for what he deemed wasteful spending

The Golden Fleece Award (1975–1988) was a tongue-in-cheek award given to public officials in the United States for their squandering of public money, its name sardonically purloined from the actual Order of the Golden Fleece, a prestigious chivalric award created in the late-15th Century, and a play on the transitive verb fleece, as in charging excessively for goods or services. United States Senator William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, began to issue the Golden Fleece Award in 1975 in monthly press releases.[1][2] The Washington Post once referred to the award as "the most successful public relations device in politics today."[3] Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, referred to the award as being "as much a part of the Senate as quorum calls and filibusters."[1]


William Proxmire, a United States Senator who represented the Democratic Party from Wisconsin, issued the award monthly from 1975 until 1988, his Senate retirement.[2] In total, he issued 168 Golden Fleece Awards.[4] Though some members of the United States House of Representatives asked Proxmire's permission to continue the award, he declined, saying he might continue to issue them as a private citizen.[2] Other organizations patterned their own "Golden Fleece Awards" after Proxmire's.[5][6] The Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog organization, gave Proxmire their lifetime achievement award in 1999,[4] and revived the Golden Fleece Award in 2000. Proxmire served as an honorary chairman of the organization.[2]

One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, behavioral scientist Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for libel, requesting $8 million in damages, in 1976.[7][8] Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in Hutchinson v. Proxmire,[9] that the protection of speech and debate of lawmakers in the Constitution did not shield Proxmire from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings. The case was later settled out of court.[10] Proxmire continued to present the award following the suit.[11]


In his 2014 book Creativity, Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull spoke of the "chilling effect on research" The Golden Fleece Award exerts. He argues that when you fund thousands of research projects, some have measurable, positive impacts and that others don't. It is not possible to predict what the results of every research project would be or whether they would have value. He further argues that failure in research is essential and that fear of failure would distort the way researchers choose projects, which would ultimately impede progress.

Award winners[edit]

Winners of the Golden Fleece Award included governmental organizations like the United States Department of Defense,[12] Bureau of Land Management,[13] and National Park Service;[14] research projects have been particularly well represented.[15] The National Science Foundation (NSF) won the first Golden Fleece Award, for spending $84,000 on a study on love.[1][4] Proxmire reasoned that:[16]

I object to this not only because no one—not even the National Science Foundation—can argue that falling in love is a science; not only because I'm sure that even if they spend $84 million or $84 billion they wouldn't get an answer that anyone would believe. I'm also against it because I don't want the answer.

I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don't want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.

The Federal Aviation Administration was named for spending $57,800 on a study of the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, that included the "distance from knee to knee while sitting", and "the politeal [sic] length of the buttocks."[17]

He also gave the award to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for their Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program, supporting the scientific search for extraterrestrial civilizations.[18] Proxmire later withdrew his opposition to the SETI program.[19]

It is widely believed he gave the award to a study of the sex life of the screwworm fly, the results of which led scientists to create sterile screwworms that were released into the wild and eliminated this major cattle parasite from North and Central America, and reduced the cost of beef and dairy products across the globe.[20] However, there is no evidence for this claim in the archives of the Award held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.[21] Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded research on the sex life of the screwworm fly took place in the 1930s through 1950s,[22] long before the Golden Fleece era of the 1970s and 80s, when Proxmire largely targeted contemporary research. The erroneous claim seems to stem from a speech by a former Director of the National Science Foundation, who stated that Proxmire gave the award to an NSF grant entitled, "The Sexual Behavior of the Screwworm Fly," and later "freely admitted that the study of the sex life of the screwworm fly had been of major significance to progress in this important field."[23]

Other award winners included:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Severo, Richard (December 16, 2005). "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved October 31, 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d "Golden Fleece award returns in watchdog role". The Blade. July 6, 2000. p. A1. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  3. ^ Mills, Mike (October 16, 1988). "Guardian dragon will doze: 'Golden Fleece' award is about to go into the attic". Toledo Blade. p. B2. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Aukofer, Frank A. (December 8, 1999). "Proxmire honored for sharp eye on $: Taxpayers' group gives founder of Golden Fleece an award of his own". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. p. 3A. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  5. ^ Bleyer, Bill (May 13, 1986). "A `Golden Fleece' Award for LIRR Workers". Newsday. Retrieved September 10, 2012. (subscription required)
  6. ^ Huard, Ray (April 16, 1999). "Library initiative wins top `Golden Fleece' award". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved September 10, 2012. (subscription required)
  7. ^ "Proxmire 'Fleeced' Of His Immunity". The Daily Union Democrat. June 26, 1979. p. 2. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  8. ^ "Proxmire Award Now a Court Issue". The Milwaukee Journal. January 21, 1979. p. 3. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  9. ^ 443 U.S. 111 (1979), 61 L.Ed. 2d 411, 99 S.Ct. 2675 (1979).
  10. ^ Johnston, David (August 28, 1987). "Senator Proxmire Bars Race in 1988". The New York Times. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  11. ^ "Golden Fleece: Award Goes To Study Showing Pot, Scuba Diving Don't Mix". The Evening Independent. Associated Press. July 20, 1979. p. 3-A. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  12. ^ "Proxmire takes aim at Defense". The Milwaukee Sentinel. December 21, 1988. p. 4. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  13. ^ Stiff, Robert (November 22, 1975). "And You Have Cash Trouble?". The Evening Independent. p. 1. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  14. ^ "Slush Fund of US Parks Wins Fleece". The Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. June 26, 1979. p. 9. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  15. ^ E.g., Steven Schimmrich, "Frivolous Research?" Hudson Valley Geologist, March 23, 2011; accessed September 20, 2012.
  16. ^ Elaine Hatfield; G. William Walster (1978). A New Look At Love. University Press of America. p. viii. ISBN 978-0-8191-4957-2.
  17. ^ "Senator's August Golden Fleece: Stewardesses' Shape Survey Just One Big Bust To Proxmire". Sarasota Herald Tribune. N.Y. Times News Service. August 22, 1975. p. 10-B. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  18. ^ Levine, Art (October 6, 1978). "NASA searches for extraterrestrial dollars". The Michigan Daily. p. 4. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  19. ^ Chandler, David L. (June 25, 1984). "Astronomy; Listening To The Stars Gets Respect". Boston Globe. Retrieved September 10, 2012. (subscription required)
  20. ^ Yager, M.; Emmett, M. (2012). "How worms' sex behavior can have a major impact on understanding human disease". Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center). 25 (4): 395–396. PMC 3448588. PMID 23077397.
  21. ^ ""Golden Fleece Awards, 1975-1987 | Turning Points in Wisconsin History". Retrieved October 3, 2016.
  22. ^ "1930s · STOP Screwworms: Selections from the Screwworm Eradication Collection · Special Collections Exhibits". Retrieved October 3, 2016.
  23. ^ Atkinson, Richard (November 10, 1997). The Golden Fleece, Science Education, and U.S. Science Policy (PDF) (Speech). Colloquium Series on the History of Science and Technology. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved October 3, 2016.
  24. ^ Carter, Bill (January 20, 2009). "He's Inspired the Latest Crime Series by Decoding the Traits of Liars". The New York Times. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  25. ^ "Proxmire criticizes drug program". The Southeast Missourian. Associated Press. August 27, 1975. p. 7. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  26. ^ Holden, Constance (April 30, 1976). "House chops sex-pot probe". Science. 192 (4238): 450. doi:10.1126/science.192.4238.450. PMID 17731076.
  27. ^ Horning, Jay (March 8, 1992). "Proxmire's Golden Fleece made him a hit with voters Series: Newsmakers Revisited". St. Petersburg Times. p. 12.A. Retrieved September 15, 2012. (subscription required)
  28. ^ "Proxmire Fleeces Bedford Wall". Logansport Pharos-Tribune. Logansport, Indiana. September 11, 1981. p. 3 – via
  29. ^ Amy Wallace; David Wallechinsky; Irving Wallace, eds. (1983). "15 Winners of the Golden Fleece Award". The People's almanac presents the book of lists #3 (Bantam ed.). New York: Bantam. p. 401. ISBN 978-0553278682.
  30. ^ "Mail service gets 'fleeced' by Proxmire". Eugene Register-Guard. United Press International. July 25, 1977. p. 10A. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  31. ^ "White House gets 'fleece' award". The Miami News. June 15, 1987. p. 2A. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  32. ^ "Proxmire hits Reagan inaugural spree". Chicago Sun-Times. Reuters. April 1, 1987. p. 38. Retrieved September 10, 2012. (subscription required)
  33. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 6, 2012. Retrieved October 15, 2015.

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