House Speaker Newt Gingrich is accused of being mean and nasty to a lot of people: the poor, Hillary Clinton, even his ex-wife. Many don't care, or think it's all a media conspiracy to "get" him. But here's a potential victim you won't hear about on the evening news or even Inside Edition that hits closer to home: advanced composites.

It didn't get much publicity, but late last year the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Advanced Technology Program (ATP) gave a huge shot in the arm to automotive composites research: $137 million in funding for 47 new projects over five years, augmented by up to $158 million in matching funds. Among the beneficiaries:

* DuPont and Cambridge Industries: $9.6 million (to which they are adding $10 million in matching funds) to develop a cost-effective, recyclable, fiber-reinforced polyester composite suitable for high-volume bodies-in-white.

* The Automotive Composites Consortium of USCAR: more than $3 million over the next two years to develop a lightweight body-in-white using structural reaction injection molding (SRIM) technology.

* Allied-Signal Inc: $2 million for research on steel replacement in car components such as door inner panels.

* Dow-United Technologies Composite Products Inc.: $519,000 for a cost-effective fly-wheel material.

* GenCorp Inc.: $2 million to develop a cost-effective manufacturing process for composites that can replace steel components in cars.

* New Venture Gear Inc., Hercules Aerospace Co., Quantum Consultants Inc.: $3 million to develop high-performance composites for use in power transmission systems in cars.

* The Budd Co.: $2 million to develop a manufacturing method for pickup truck frames that are 75 lbs. (34 kg) lighter than steel frames.

Whenever there is talk about making drastically more fuel-efficient vehicles for projects such as the industry/government "Supercar" program, "advanced composites" always are mentioned as the most logical choice because of their extremely high strength-to-weight ratio. Yet research on producing composite vehicle structures that can predictably absorb crash energy and can be mass-produced cost-effectively remains in its infancy -- especially at the supplier level -- and especially in the U.S. Similar programs in Europe and Japan are further along.

But these ATP research dollars -- along with the entire Commerce Dept. -- could be on the chopping block as the new Republican majority prowls for Democrat-related pork.

Certainly in another era big suppliers could have funded such research on their own. Sadly, today's small margins and cash-hungry shareholders allow little room for pure research that doesn't haven't an immediate payback.

Be advised, we're not talking about making $300,000 Frisbees. We're talking about changing expensive space-age composites into everyday materials that can be used in a variety of industries, not just automotive. This is rocket science, and it could prove to be an enormous boost to U.S. industrial competitiveness.

Interviews with DuPont and Cambridge Industries officials -- among others -- reveal highly focused programs to further develop materials already commercialized in automotive to some extent. DuPont's "XTC" thermoplastic polyester composite sheet already is being produced, and the companies are developing a much stronger, even more advanced, structural version using carbon and DuPont "Kevlar" aramid fiber reinforcement that can be formed and assembled in high-speed processes.

If the program isn't shut down by the new Republican Congress -- and that's a pretty big "if" nowadays -- the next five years could yield some truly amazing advances in lightweight vehicle structures.

The steel industry isn't happy, of course, about potential competitors enjoying government-sponsored research while they pay their own way on similar light-weight development efforts. That problem should be solved by throwing some cash their way, too, not eliminating funding for all. If the government is going to demand vehicles that are lighter and more fuel-efficient than the marketplace demands, then it should share some of the financial burden of making such products a reality.

But what's most unfortunate is that the future of such research funding will be decided not by scientific analysis or even common sense -- but as usual by politics inside the Bellway.