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Meet Representative Thomas Massie: A Constitutional Conservative With an MIT Pedigree

21 November 2012 11:55 am
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Courtesy of Thomas Massie

Tech transfer. Inventor Thomas Massie heads off to Washington, D.C., from his Kentucky farm.

The newest member of the U.S. House of Representatives was the first recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. The solar panels on his home in rural Kentucky generate all the electricity his family needs to live on and work a 1200-acre cattle farm. And he's awaiting delivery of a Tesla electric car.

But Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) is no latte-sipping tree-hugger. He doesn't think that the scientific evidence for climate change is compelling. He says that any discussion of preserving government support for academic research must wait until after the country's politicians get serious about eliminating the $1 trillion annual federal deficit and whittling down the nation's $16 trillion debt. And he admits that the libertarians who backed his candidacy for an open seat, including former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), would probably be uncomfortable with the fact that he receives a check every year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for royalties from licensing a patent based on work for his undergraduate thesis. (He later earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering before starting his own company, SensAble Devices, which was eventually renamed SensAble Technologies.)

"I like to point out that intellectual property, in itself, is sort of an antilibertarian thing," says Massie, 41, who describes himself as a "constitutional conservative" within the Republican Party. "But it's in the U.S. Constitution. It's there as a pragmatic concession to promoting invention. It motivates progress. … Ironically, it's one of the examples where I am not a libertarian."

What Massie is, by his own description, is an engineer. He says that it's important to distinguish between facts and opinion, which is why he found "odd and distasteful" an undergraduate course in macroeconomics taught by Paul Krugman, the outspoken liberal economist who in 2008 would win a Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his work on international trade patterns.

"He was putting equations on the board, with Greek symbols, to describe things," recalls Massie, then an undergraduate. "But it was more of a belief than a know. I was coming from a calculus class, where it's not what you believe but what is. But here, it's like, what do you mean, you believe? Why don't you know?" Massie says he earned an A in the course despite the fact that "a lot of it didn't make sense to me."

Massie launched his political career in 2010 by being elected county judge executive in Lewis County, Kentucky. On 6 November he actually won two elections—a special election to complete the 2-year term of Representative Geoff Davis, who resigned on 31 July, and a general election for a regular seat. And on 13 November he was sworn into office, moving ahead of the rest of next year's freshman class. This week Massie talked with ScienceInsider about his education, his experiences as an entrepreneur, and his thoughts about the issues facing the 113th Congress.

On federal support for research:

T.M.: Of all the things our government does, research is probably one of the more worthwhile ones. But I'm not sure it moves the discussion forward in the short run to be asking if the government should be doing this or that, because next year, the reality is that it will be doing those things.

The real question is, down the road, when we balance the budget, and we do need to balance the budget, how are we going to do it? And I think we're probably going to have to cut everything.

And this is where I part company with other Republicans. I think there will need to be cuts to the military as well. I think we'll need to cut across the board. So if you're asking if my ideology compels me to go to Washington and eliminate all research funding, the answer is no. But if you're asking if my background compels me to say we need to double our spending on science, the answer is also no.

We have a very complicated problem, and that's how to balance the budget. … We have a trillion-dollar deficit and we are $16 trillion in debt. And nothing about increasing funding for research is more compelling to me than the counterargument that we need to balance the budget.

So it will be a tough decision. And I think that it's helpful, when we do take a scalpel to the budget, to have people who know where the arteries are.

On the role of universities in innovation:

T.M.: When I got to MIT, I observed that it was literally ringed with companies. And I thought, "How miserable is that? You go to school here and after 4 or 6 years, you can't get any further away from campus than this?"

And where did I end up? I was struck right there in the asteroid belt.

Universities are good incubators for start-ups, there's no doubt. They bring together like-minded people and there are thousands of companies that have been started by MIT graduates. So it's undeniable that they are generators of innovation, and I'm an example of that.

On commercializing discoveries:

T.M.: I think [MIT's technology transfer office] is a great model. I have friends who are trying to work out a similar model at the University of Kentucky so that more of the technology is utilized. Some universities could benefit from a more structured program. In a lot of places, the technology dies a slow death on a shelf, or it walks out the door in the folders of the professor. And I think it benefits everybody to have a healthy tech transfer program. …

There's a lot of accumulated human effort that goes on at a university in connection with developing a technology. So I think part of the reason to do tech transfer is to make sure that that human effort is commercialized and leveraged, whether the university makes money on it or not.

Now I'm pretty sure that at MIT they make enough money to make it worth doing. I don't know how much. [Editor's note: MIT reported cash income of $147.5 million last year from such activities, including $54 million from royalties.] A third goes to the university or the department, a third goes to the tech transfer office, and the rest goes to the inventors, and they seem to be effective with those ratios. I know that, in my case, it was worth their time.

On climate change:

T.M.: Let me say first that I don't like pollution. The libertarian in me says that it's a violation of property and privacy rights. My neighbor can't dump trash on my property because it degrades my property. So I don't think people have a right to pollute other people's property.

I have solar panels on my roof, and I'm talking to you on a phone that has been charged with solar panels. … I took a trip once to one of the inland glaciers in the Canadian Rockies, and there were stakes in the ground showing how much it had receded since the 1800s. And it was obvious to me that it had been melting since preindustrial times. …

Most of the public is still debating whether the earth is heating up. But I think the real question is by how much? I'm still looking for an answer I can hold onto. …

I honestly think that it's an open question, and I hope you don't write me off for that. I realize that there's a conflict of interest for some of the people doing the research. I think some people are trying to integrate backwards, starting with the answer and working the other way. I think the jury is still out on the contribution of our activities to the change in the earth's climate. …

But to be on the safe side, I've got a thousand acres of trees on my property and I'm not going to cut them, even if that would be the profit-maximizing thing to do. And I don't intend to cut them in my lifetime. And I see a lot of people who outwardly seem more concerned with the environment but aren't doing anything about it.

On whether he wants to serve on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology:

T.M.: Well, the right answer is that I want to be on the committees where I can best serve my constituents. And I do have higher priorities than the science committee.

I have talked to [Representatives] Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) [who are both vying to chair the committee]. They both reached out to me, and it sounds like an interesting committee.

One idea I heard that I like is that patents should be under the science committee. I realize it's very unlikely to happen given what I know about Washington. Nobody wants to give up their jurisdiction. But, you know, patents generally involve science and technology, and there seems to be a lot of knowledge in that domain on that committee. Right now, there seems to be power concentrated in four or five committees, and I think that it would be better if the power was spread more broadly across Congress.

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