At a time when sequestration is forcing science-funding agencies to cut millions of dollars from their research budgets and short-sighted budget-cutters feel free to mock grant proposals just because they seem obscure or don’t have obvious potential for immediate impact, the story of William H. Coulter can be instructive.
Coulter was a researcher and inventor who some fifty years ago was tasked with a seemingly mundane problem. The paint the Navy was using to protect its ships varied a bit from batch to batch in the number of suspended pigment particles it contained. Coulter got a grant from the Office of Naval Research to see if he could get a better measure of those particles so the paint could be made a bit more consistent.
The problem was not exactly one on which wars would be won or lost. In tight budgetary times like today’s it would be easy to imagine that grant money going to something “more important.”
But one night in 1947, when Coulter ran out of paint in his garage-based lab (turns out that MacIntosh computers and Google’s search algorithms were not the first things to get invented in garages) Coulter substituted the only other viscous fluid at his disposal—some of his own blood. That’s when he made the amazing discovery that his nascent technique of using alterations in electrical resistance to measure particles in paint could also measure the number of cells in a sample of blood.
Thus was born the Coulter Counter, a machine that, to this day, remains a standard means of automatically counting cells in blood samples for the diagnosis of anemia and a range of other blood disorders.
Coulter died in 1998, but last month he was named a posthumous winner of the Golden Goose award—a recognition created last year by a coalition of science research and advocacy organization to celebrate the value of federally funded research—especially experiments that may have seemed to lack much value at first but that ultimately made enormous differences in people’s lives and benefited society.
Would Coulter’s work have been funded today?
"Mr. Coulter's request for federal funding of his groundbreaking research would undoubtedly have been ridiculed today," Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), said in response to the recent Goose announcement, according to a statement released by the Association of American Universities, one of the award’s sponsors. "You can almost imagine the pithy sound bites that would be used to denigrate his request – 'Government paying people to watch paint dry' – or something along those lines. Instead, what the American taxpayers received was a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing. Imagine how many people gained employment because of Mr. Coulter's genius."
Coulter’s Golden Goose is the first of several to be awarded this year. He and other winners, to be announced over the next several months, will be honored at a ceremony later in the year. But the lesson he taught is timely right now. With so many challenges facing the Nation in healthcare, energy, environmental protection, manufacturing, transportation, and national security, this is no time to make presumptions about the expendability of US research proposals. Now is the time for all hands on deck—a nicely painted deck to boot.
Bess Evans is a Public Engagement Advisor at OSTP