Biting the hands that feeds it


Yesterday I read an article which explained that a Republican Congressman berated the head of the National Science Foundation for high gas prices. This is pretty distressing because it shows a clear lack of understanding of the goals of the NSF, the role of industry in innovation, consumers and the policies the Republican party and the US government has in place in regard to fuel usage.

First of all, the NSF is an organization that funds cutting edge research that expands the frontier of science. The goal is not to pick winners at that early of a stage. Picking a technology specifically to reduce the cost of fuel would be that. The goal is to pick the best ideas in a broad range of topics and fund several ideas within the same topic to get competing technologies and research groups. They groups can look at the same problem with a different perspective and lead to very different results, which together could lead to a huge break through (if they each don’t get their own break through or the same one). The goal is to create variety. I’m sure there are tons of projects that are focused on creating alternative fuels and increasing the efficiency of our combustion engines. However, the research isn’t going to be commercializable for 10 to 15 years. That’s just how long it takes. The research we’re funding today will be driving our economy through the next decade. 
If the Congressman wants a better target to go after, he should look to the car companies. There has been research for a large number of years on engine technology, however not all of it has been used to actually improve efficiency. Some times it’s used to increase the power of the vehicle. They do this because that’s what the consumer wants. Americans love their big powerful cars. There’s no reason why my mother in-law NEEDS to drive the extended Tahoe, but she does – she feels safer in her “Battle wagon.” However, the vehicle gets very low gas mileage, which of course is a double whammy when the prices increase. Huge tank and high prices make it expensive. The more gas the vehicle uses the higher the prices will be going. In Europe the gas prices Americans are complaining about are absurdly low. In the Netherlands it’s something like $8/gallon, around $3 of that is in taxes. However, in those countries there are much more fuel efficient vehicles because they have to be. Many of those countries don’t really want people to be driving.
The same car manufacturers that complain about putting minimum fuel economy standards on cars are able to meet higher standards in Europe. The US government could easily play a role in increasing the standards for new vehicles. They may not be doing enough. Continually increasing the standards with higher gas prices will increase the incentives for manufacturing those vehicles. Especially if the US government provides a customer for those cars. This would ensure that the car companies will be able to sell a minimum number of the vehicles without fear of a complete flop of the technology. 

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