As I understand it, the award is for funny sounding ("seemingly obscure," "wacky title," "left field") research that was supported by federal funds and eventually proved to be useful:
- Nominees must have received a federally funded research grant within the past 60 years that contributed to an important discovery or breakthrough (Grant agencies include, but are not limited to, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy.);
- Nominees’ research must already have led to demonstrable, significant human and economic benefits (the Golden Goose Award is not intended to honor current research that might lead to breakthroughs in the future);
- Research teams are eligible to receive a nomination for their work;
- Individuals may be nominated for their work posthumously, but only if an individual or organizational representative is available to accept the award at an event;
“We’ve all read stories about the study with the wacky title, the research project from left field,” Rep. Cooper said. “But off-the-wall science yields medical miracles. We can’t abandon research funding only because we can’t predict how the next miracle will happen.”
This is only the second time the award is being given, and this year's awards will go to Dr. John Eng, whose study of the poisonous venom produced by the Gila monster led to a drug helps treat diabetes, to microbiologist Thomas Brock and glycobiologist Hudson Freeze for their studies of bacteria that thrive in very hot water that yielded a key to the technology of the polymerase chain reaction, and to David and Lloyd and me. Here's the announcement about our part of the prize, which mentions the funding we received from the NSF and the ONR.
AWARDEES: Alvin Roth, David Gale, Lloyd Shapley
FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCY: Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation
I think the part of our work that is mentioned and that best fits the storyline of "obscure research makes good" is the line that begins with the 1974 paper by Shapley and Scarf in the first issue of the Journal of Mathematical Economics. They proposed a model of exchange of an indivisible good, without the use of money, and called the goods "houses." Since we are obviously able to use money to buy houses (I just bought one and can testify that it cost money), this was funny-sounding research that might have attracted the ire of Senator Proxmire. But playing with toy models is how economic theory gets ready to deal with unanticipated problems. They introduced Gale's top trading cycle algorithm (ttc), which Andy Postlewaite used to further explore the model in a 1977 paper. In a 1982 paper I showed that ttc makes it a dominant strategy for players to reveal their true preferences. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Sonmez later generalized the mechanism in ways that, when it came time to organize kidney exchange, made it easy to propose that it be organized in a ttc way involving cycles and chains, with the dominant strategy property being an important piece of the puzzle. Whilettc isn't how we eventually helped organize kidney exchange (we had to start with just pairwise exchanges for logistical reasons), the practice of kidney exchange has been evolving in the direction of cycles and (long) chains, in ways that Itai Ashlagi and our surgical colleagues have been working to understand and build upon. So, what started with a model of exchanging houses without money has evolved into exchanging kidneys in a way that's become a standard part of transplantation in the U.S. in the last few years.
This is an opportunity to remind Congress and the public of the importance of investigator-initiated, peer reviewed research. Go NSF! (NSF posts on kidney exchange are here and here.)