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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Subcommittee Hearing on PNGV

July 30, 1996

On Tuesday, July 30, the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the Partnership for New Generation of Vehicles Program (PNGV), a seven-agency research and development program -- that includes NSF -- in partnership with the Big 3 auto companies. Testifying for NSF was Dr. Joseph Bordogna, Assistant Director for Engineering. Other witnesses included Dr. Lionel "Skip" Johns, OSTP; representatives of the Departments of Energy and Commerce; representatives of the Big Three automakers; the National Research Council's Standing Committee on PNGV; and the academic community.

Dr. Bordogna testified about NSF's role in the PNGV program and how PNGV fits within the core strategies designed to guide NSF investments. NSF does not issue proposals explicitly focusing on PNGV, but that university researchers are often excited by research directions in technological areas that are important to U.S. industry and identified as national needs. NSF has had close interactions with the Big Three automakers most notably through a series of workshops to pinpoint the basic research needs for the auto industry and through the recent creation of an Engineering Research Center at the University of Michigan with heavy auto industry involvement. According to Bordogna, NSF also fosters important links between research and education, where investigators and their students are able to work in close cooperation with industry. This creates a rich environment for the creation of new ideas and new knowledge that enables the nation's capacity to perform, Bordogna said.

Several members of the subcommittee, including acting chairman Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), commented that spending on the PNGV program has been questioned by some in Congress as corporate welfare or industrial policy. Members asked each of the witnesses to explain why this program was a good expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

Dr. Johns and Mr. Robert Chapman of the Department of Commerce both said that in today's competitive marketplace with corporations scrutinizing every expenditure, critical basic research was not a high priority for the private sector especially in the auto industry. Both felt strongly that the program was needed to remedy this defect in the marketplace and to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness. They also stressed that the PNGV program is a change for how the auto companies interacted with the federal government. PNGV is a proactive, cooperative partnership between the federal government and private industry, they said. In the past according to the witnesses, government had sought to impose solutions on the auto industry to achieve national goals, either by CAFE standards to reduce auto emissions or through increased regulations or taxes.

Members seemed to accept this rationale for the program. Mr. Ehlers and Mr. Bartlett stressed the need to reduce dependence on foreign oil, a key reason for the development of the program according to witnesses. Both Mr. Ehlers and Mr. Bartlett indicated that the program deserved consistent funding in future years.

Full Science Committee chairman Robert Walker complemented the program for focusing on long-term research, which is needed if the government is going to be involved. Several of Mr. Walker's questions focused on the development of hydrogen fuel, a technology being studied as part of PNGV.

The second panel focused primarily on management of the PNGV program.

Representatives of the Big Three automakers testified that the program was working well and showing significant progress towards meeting it's self imposed goal of a better, more efficient generation of autos. The program was truly a new paradigm for industry-government interaction in the automotive field, these witnesses said, and as a result, was continuing to overcome obstacles.

Representatives of the National Research Council's advisory panel on the PNGV sounded a more cautionary tale, by pointing to several problems in the management of the PNGV program. Since the PNGV program is a loose confederation of R&D agency programs and there is no one single PNGV program manager, it will be difficult for government R&D resources to be shifted or altered to effectively meet PNGV goals. Thus when certain technologies are identified as being more promising towards achieving PNGV goals, there is no mechanism for channeling government resources towards these technologies, while dropping support of less promising technologies. The NRC witnesses also testified that there is also no single PNGV program manager for the private auto companies either.

The automakers responded to this criticism by saying that the NRC proposal would simply add another layer of bureaucracy to the program. They testified that this program is a first: it has spurred a close cooperation between auto industry competitors on long-range research issues. They said further that one single government or private sector director could hurt the on-going partnership between the Big Three and/or the government agencies.

See also: Testimony from Dr. Bordogna.