Educating congressional staffers on the importance of health services research—or even research more generally—can sometimes prove challenging:

Staffer: "Now tell me, why should I fund this research? How is it going to better my community/state/country?"

Researcher/Research Advocate: "Well, our hypothesis is that XYZ will happen, but we're not sure yet."

Although scientists have undoubtedly been among the core building blocks of modern society, in an era of competing political interests and limited funding, policymakers sometimes brush off studies whose practical applications are not easily recognized for those that have a more "immediate" use or effect.

Earlier this month, economists Robert Wilson, Paul Milgrom, and R. Preston McAfee received the 2014 Golden Goose Award, which “recognizes scientists and engineers whose federally funded research has had a significant human and economic benefits.” More specifically—and more intriguingly—the award highlights examples of those “seemingly obscure studies” that have made tremendous breakthroughs and led to some sort of major societal impact.

The highly theoretical research of this year's winners on auctions and game theory—described as using mathematical models to study how people and organizations make decisions—eventually enabled the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate the nation's telecommunications spectrum through auctions. During a spectrum auction, a government sells the rights (licenses) to send signals over specific bands of the electromagnetic spectrum and assigns its scarce resources. As Rep. Charlie Daniel (R-PA) stated in the award press release, "The theoretical work done by Professors Wilson, Milgrom, and McAfee has revolutionized federal auctions and returned the federal government's investment many times over."

Including that first FCC auction in 1994, the agency has conducted 87 auctions, raising over $60 billion for the U.S. Treasury and enabling the proliferation of wireless technologies that make life convenient, safe and connected. Additionally, the basic auction process they developed has been used the world over not only for other nations’ spectrum auctions but also for items as diverse as gas stations, airport slots, telephone numbers, fishing quotas, emissions permits, and electricity and natural gas contracts.

As AcademyHealth has previously mentioned, today the "soft sciences," such as health services research are losing ground to the "hard sciences," such as biomedical research in the minds of some policymakers. Health services research has a definite role to play in the social and economic advancement of the country, but its genuine potential—and its true impact—may not yet be recognized.

As we advocate for the field of health services research in Washington, we can't help but wonder, "Where are our Golden Geese?" What are the research studies that may have at first seemed overly theoretical, but have produced a similarly great impact?

AcademyHealth President and CEO Lisa Simpson posted a variation of this question on the organization's members-only social networking site We welcome your thoughts.

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