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Kiyoshi Kurokawa

Tea Party Engineer

An MIT-trained congressman won’t exempt
research funding from cuts.


By Mark Matthews


Looking from the dais during a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on research and development, Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie recalled an earlier encounter with Charles Vest, one of the experts invited to testify. As an MIT student, Massie had been called on then President Vest’s carpet for hacking into the system that controls automated blackboards, making them move in a way that displaced and hid professors’ scribbles. Avoiding any serious sanction, Massie finished at MIT with degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, carrying off the first $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention. He went on to build a company with his wife to market the PHANTOM, a tactile interface that let users “feel” objects found in cyberspace. His patents continue to produce income for both him and the university.

As the February 6 House hearing got under way, laying the groundwork for reauthorization of the landmark America COMPETES Act, Massie framed a question for Vest, who is soon to retire as president of the National Academy of Engineering. Massie says he planned to preface it by expressing appreciation to Vest for going easy on that long-ago student prankster. He then wanted to ask what advice Vest would offer universities that had not followed MIT’s successful model for patent royalties – with the university, tech-transfer office, and student-inventor each receiving one-third shares.

Massie’s question might have raised doubts about R&D management and universities’ cry for robust government funding, but he never got to ask it. An indignity endured by freshman lawmakers is being the last to speak, and this particular hearing ended before his turn came. But Massie, a Tea Party enthusiast and fan of both Ron and Rand Paul, has already made his presence felt on the House floor, bucking GOP leaders by voting against John Boehner’s re-election as speaker, the defense authorization bill, the New Year’s fiscal cliff deal, and Hurricane Sandy relief. And lack of seniority seems unlikely to suppress his independent, if not mischievous, streak on the science panel, where he chairs the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee. In a phone interview from Kentucky as he was en route back to Washington, Massie made clear that university researchers shouldn’t count on his unstinting support.

“The greatest threat to our economy is the national debt,” Massie said, and that “trumps everything else.” Even though he once worked in federally supported MIT labs, he says no part of the government should be exempt from belt tightening. “Folks looking to me to carve an exception are going to be disappointed.” His going-in assumption is that “there is waste in every department.”

None of this means Massie flatly opposes federal R&D support or lacks enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology. After selling his start-up, SensAble Technologies, he bought a farm, built an off-grid, solar-powered house, and experimented with methane from cattle manure as an energy source. He also became board chairman of a medical-device start-up and put in an early order for an $80,000 Tesla boasting a long-range battery. (He tools around Washington in a 1993 Mustang.) Yet he disagrees with the taxpayer-funded subsidy he’s due for buying an electric vehicle and says he has yet to see evidence that carbon emissions are causing droughts, as President Obama declared at his second inaugural.

While his own firm benefited from Small Business Innovation Research grants, Massie thinks the program could be better administered: “I saw companies that got stuck in a rut and became SBIR mills,” devoting too much effort to renewing government funding and too little to commercializing technology, he says.

For Massie, an encouraging moment at the House hearing came when Vest and fellow witnesses Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Texas Instruments CEO Richard Templeton joined in lamenting the woeful state of grade-school science, technology, engineering, and math education. “I feel that the focus hasn’t been there,” Massie says. As someone initially drawn to science by school science fairs, he was also pleased to hear Vest praise the Maker movement as a way to engage the young.

 

 


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