This morning, while searching for material on the history of mechanism design, I stumbled on the Golden Goose award webpage. Though I’m being told it is quite important in scientific/policy circles, I had never heard of it.
Founded in 2012 by a pool of private and public patrons, it was aimed at countering Senator William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece Awards” influence on public society and policy-makers’ perception of science. Between 1975 and 1988, Proxmire set out to throw light and lambast public institutions and research projects he believed were a ridiculous waste of time and money: a NSF-funded study on love, some physical measurement of airline stewardesses, the development of facial coding systems, a study of why prisoners want to escape or Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. The Golden Goose committee thus wanted to dissipate the idea that federally funded research that sounded odd or obscure to non-scientists was necessary useless, by highlighting cases in which such research happened to have a major impact on society.
The stories behind laureate research programs are recounted through texts and videos. These include a 1950 study of the sex life of screwworm flies (which was wrongly considered a target of Proxmire and contributed to eradicate the fly and save millions of dollars in cattle treatment and loss), the honeybee algorithm, the national longitudinal study of adolescent to adult health, the marshmallow test, and two economics research programs: the “market design” award went to Alvin Roth, David Gale and Lloyd Shapley in 2013 (one year after the Nobel), and the “auction design” award went to Preston McAfee, Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson the following year.
I don’t know about prizes in other disciplines, but I feel the Golden Goose could be bolder on the economics research it singles out. Not that I want to diminish the outstanding achievements of market and auction design, but my sense is that this research was not the most in need of public spotlight. The history of mechanism design is still in infancy and much contested. It is an area whose protagonists have been eager to write their own history. Historians largely disagree on how to interpret the famous Federal Communication Commission radio spectrum auctions (Francesco Guala and Michel Callon reconstruct them as a case of performative research. Eddie Nik-Khah disagrees and argues that telecommunication business imperatives displaced scientific ones. See also his forthcoming book with Phil Mirowski). My issue is with portraying mechanism design as a field previously perceived as abstract, obscure or irrelevant. Some research in progress suggests that the Stanford environment in which mechanism design was developed benefited from sustained and stable relationships with military then industrial and tech clients, which were confortable with having their scientific clients pursuing theoretical ideas with uncertain applicability. The research program involved economists initially trained in operational research departments, who might have carried new conceptions of theory, applications, and risk-return tradeoffs. As NSF social science funding came under attack at the turn of the 1980s, economic theorists then singled out a mechanism design lab experiment as their flagship example of “socially useful” research. And after the 2007 financial crisis broke out and economists’ expertise came under attack, matching market aud auction design became ubiquitous in their defense of their discipline’s social benefits (here are a few examples).
While it is certainly good to have the key role of Robert Wilson in architecting Stanford’s brand of game theory and mechanism design finally recognized, I nevertheless remain skeptical that this research has ever been construed as obscure, odd or silly. I’m willing to concede that I may be too naïve, given the permanent threat upon federally funded research (see Coburn’s 2011 attacks and summer 2016 debates on the social benefits of NSF-funded economic research). The point is that the Golden Goose award jury could make bolder choices, in economics as in other sciences.
Educating policy makers and the public on how science is made is the purpose of the Golden Goose award. And it’s one shared by historians of hard, tech, STEM, medicine, computer or social sciences. They spend countless hours uncovering the diverse and complex relationships between theory and applications, induction and deduction, how much is planned and how much is accidental. Operational Research historian Will Thomas told me he’d like more research on “delayed applications” (whether because of the lack of adequate theories or computer infrastructure or money or else, or because of unexpected applications). Historians are also tasked with uncovering the many external hindrances scientists face in pursuing research programs, from claims of being too abstract to claims of being too specific (Proxmire targeted that not just highly abstract science, but also empirical research which seemed to specific to be ever applied elsewhere or generalized was often derided). Scientists have routinely faced pressures by public, private, military organizations and agnotology lobbies to alter, hide or dismiss scientific results. Nevertheless, historians sometimes conclude, they persisted. Historical inquiry finally offers a unique window into the difficulty of defining, identifying and quantifying science’s “social benefits.”
Golden Goose alumni Josh Shiode confirmed that the jury welcome nominations by historians of science. There is neither disciplinary nor temporal restrictions (it is not necessary, for instance, that the scientists whose research is nominated are still alive). Three nomination criteria are:
- federally funded research
- projects that may have appeared unusual, obscure, which sounded “funny” or whose value could have been questioned
- major impact on society
Nominating research projects seems an excellent way for historians of science to educate the public.