Golden Fleece Award

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William Proxmire issued the Golden Fleece 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 squandering public money. Its name is sardonically taken from the actual Order of the Golden Fleece, a prestigious chivalric award created in the late 15th century. It is a play on the transitive verb fleece, or charging excessively for goods or services.

United States Senator William Proxmire, Democrat from Wisconsin, began to issue the Golden Fleece Award in 1975 in monthly press releases.[1][2] In 1988, The Washington Post 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.[2] 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] 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", behavioral scientist Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for $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 2012 several organizations created the Golden Goose Award, celebrating federally funded scientists doing basic research with benefits to society or humanity.

In his 2014 book Creativity, Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull wrote of the "chilling effect on research" the Golden Fleece Award exerted. He argued that when thousands of research projects are funded, some have measurable, positive impacts and others don't. It is not possible to predict what the results of every research project will be or whether they will have value. Catmull further argued that failure in research is essential and that fear of failure would distort the way researchers choose projects, which would ultimately impede progress.[12]

Award winners[edit]

Winners of the Golden Fleece Award included governmental organizations like the United States Department of Defense,[13] Bureau of Land Management,[14] and National Park Service;[15] research projects have been particularly well represented.[16] Many of the projects have been characterized as junk science that "lack substance" and were "marginal or useless scientific research".[17]

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:[18]

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, including "distance from knee to knee while sitting", and "the politeal [sic] length of the buttocks."[19]

Proxmire 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.[20] Proxmire later withdrew his opposition to the SETI program.[21]

It is widely believed that Proxmire gave the award to a study of the sex life of the screwworm fly, the results of which led scientists to create sterile screwworms, which 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.[22] However, there is no evidence for this claim in the archives of the award held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.[23] 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,[24] 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 titled "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."[25]

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 November 17, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d "Golden Fleece award returns in watchdog role". The Blade. July 6, 2000. p. A1. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  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 November 17, 2018.
  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 November 17, 2018.
  5. ^ Bleyer, Bill (May 13, 1986). "A 'Golden Fleece' Award for LIRR Workers". Newsday.
  6. ^ Huard, Ray (April 16, 1999). "Library initiative wins top 'Golden Fleece' award". The San Diego Union-Tribune.
  7. ^ "Proxmire 'Fleeced' Of His Immunity". The Daily Union Democrat. June 26, 1979. p. 2. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  8. ^ "Proxmire Award Now a Court Issue". The Milwaukee Journal. January 21, 1979. p. 3. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  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 November 17, 2018.
  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 November 17, 2018.
  12. ^ Catmull, Edwin; Wallace, Amy (2014). Creativity, Inc. Transworld Publishers Limited. ISBN 978-0552167260. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  13. ^ "Proxmire takes aim at Defense". The Milwaukee Sentinel. December 21, 1988. p. 4. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  14. ^ Stiff, Robert (November 22, 1975). "And You Have Cash Trouble?". The Evening Independent. p. 1. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  15. ^ "Slush Fund of US Parks Wins Fleece". The Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. June 26, 1979. p. 9. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  16. ^ Schimmrich, Steven (March 23, 2011). "Frivolous Research?". Hudson Valley Geologist. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  17. ^ Williams, William F. (December 2, 2013). "Ethical Issues in Pseudoscience: Ideology, Fraud, and Misconduct". Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-95522-9.
  18. ^ Hatfield, Elaine; Walster, G. William (1978). A New Look At Love. University Press of America. p. viii. ISBN 978-0-8191-4957-2. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  19. ^ "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 November 17, 2018.
  20. ^ Levine, Art (October 5, 1978). "NASA searches for extraterrestrial dollars". The Michigan Daily. p. 4. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  21. ^ Chandler, David L. (June 25, 1984). "Astronomy; Listening To The Stars Gets Respect". Boston Globe.
  22. ^ Yager, Mariana; Emmett, Michael (October 2012). "How worms' sex behavior can have a major impact on understanding human disease". Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center). 25 (4): 395–396. doi:10.1080/08998280.2012.11928890. PMC 3448588. PMID 23077397.
  23. ^ "Golden Fleece Awards, 1975-1987 -- Turning Points in Wisconsin History". Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  24. ^ "1930s -- STOP Screwworms: Selections from the Screwworm Eradication Collection". Special Collections Exhibits. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  25. ^ Atkinson, Richard C. (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 November 17, 2018.
  26. ^ Carter, Bill (January 20, 2009). "He's Inspired the Latest Crime Series by Decoding the Traits of Liars". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  27. ^ "Proxmire criticizes drug program". The Southeast Missourian. Associated Press. August 27, 1975. p. 7. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  28. ^ Holden, Constance (April 30, 1976). "House Chops Sex-Pot Probe". Science. 192 (4238): 450. doi:10.1126/science.192.4238.450. PMID 17731076. S2CID 31636430.
  29. ^ Horning, Jay (March 8, 1992). "Proxmire's Golden Fleece made him a hit with voters". St. Petersburg Times. p. 12.A. Retrieved November 17, 2018. (subscription required)
  30. ^ "Golden Fleece Award to $6,000 Army Sauce Study". United Press International. July 10, 1981. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  31. ^ "Proxmire Fleeces Bedford Wall". Logansport Pharos-Tribune. Logansport, Indiana. September 11, 1981. p. 3. Retrieved November 17, 2018 – via
  32. ^ Wallace, Amy; Wallechinsky, David; Wallace, Irving, eds. (1983). "15 Winners of the Golden Fleece Award". The People's Almanac Presents the Book of Lists #3. New York: Bantam. pp. 399–402. ISBN 978-0553278682. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  33. ^ "Mail service gets 'fleeced' by Proxmire". Eugene Register-Guard. United Press International. July 25, 1977. p. 10A. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  34. ^ "White House gets 'fleece' award". The Miami News. June 15, 1987. p. 2A.
  35. ^ "Proxmire hits Reagan inaugural spree". Chicago Sun-Times. Reuters. April 1, 1987. p. 38. Retrieved November 17, 2018. (subscription required)
  36. ^ "The 50th Presidential Inauguration: Ronald W. Reagan". Retrieved November 17, 2018.

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