Legislator Berates NSF for Rising Gas Prices

The National Science Foundation (NSF) likes to portray itself as the "engine of innovation" for the U.S. economy through its support of academic research. But much to the chagrin of Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), NSF doesn't help Americans with the cost of filling the gas tanks of the actual engines that keep the country moving.

This morning the Science, Space, and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing on NSF's 2013 budget request. Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), who presided over the hearing as chair of its research subcommittee, warned of impending fiscal doom if the federal government can't stop "paying for programs with money it simply does not have." But the freshman legislator, who represents a technology-rich area around Huntsville, Alabama, was careful to exclude NSF's request for a 4.8% increase from that harangue.

During the hearing, Brooks praised NSF's record and appeared to empathize with the "tough choices" that NSF Director Subra Suresh said he had had to make. He even suggested that NSF had demonstrated admirable constraint in its budget request: "If I were in charge—and I'm not—I would be surprised that you are only asking for a 5% increase." After the hearing, Brooks expressed optimism that Congress would go along with NSF's request. "If we can cut in the right places, I think NSF will do fine," he told ScienceInsider.

In contrast, Harris was feeling considerably less charitable toward the $7-billion research agency. "I've got to tell you, Dr. Suresh, that America is tired of hearing that a 5% increase is a tough choice when they are paying 50 cents more for gasoline," he reprimanded the NSF director.

And Harris was just getting warmed up. In the second round of questioning, he got around to his real concern, which was NSF's role in the current rising prices at the pump. "What is NSF doing to bring down the price of gasoline?" Harris demanded of Suresh. "Please tell me that you know what they are feeling and that you are doing something about the price of gasoline."

Faced with this blast from the chair of the science committee's panel on energy and the environment, Suresh didn't flinch. "I wish it were that easy, and that I could say NSF's efforts today could lead to a reduction in gas prices tomorrow," Suresh replied. But it doesn't work that way, he explained to the freshman legislator. Instead, the former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said NSF supports cutting-edge research that, some day, could translate into new technologies, including cheaper and cleaner ways to drill for fossil fuels.

Representative Brooks didn't seem to get Harris' point, either. "That's the first time I've heard anyone make that argument," he told Science Insider after the hearing. "I have no position on that issue, and I would have to think about it before I had anything to say."

Or perhaps NSF was simply a convenient foil for a message that Harris wanted to send to his constituents. "What can you expect?" said one NSF official after the hearing. "He's running for re-election in November."