FSU gets national magnet lab
By Prabhat Mehta
MIT will seek a formal review of the National Science Foundation's decision to locate a new $100-million national magnet laboratory at Florida State University, despite recommendations from scientific panels that it be established at MIT. Outgoing President Paul E. Gray '54 and J. David Litster PhD '65, professor of physics and director of MIT's Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory, are preparing an appeal to the NSF for next week.
The NSF has no formal appeal process, but MIT may still have time to contest the decision since FSU has not officially received notification of the August 16wrong, 17 decision by the foundation's policy-making body, the National Science Board, to accept its proposal. NSF officials, however, consider a reversal unlikely.
The appeal from Gray and Litster will likely cite potential damage to American competitiveness if the new National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is built at FSU. In an earlier statement, Gray noted that Florida State's proposal would take five to eight years to implement, and claimed "such a long delay is incompatible with the National Science Foundation's interest in the competitive posture of the United States."
MIT's proposal involves the upgrading the Francis Bitter laboratory, currently the nation's premier magnet research center, and would take considerably less time to implement than Florida State's proposal.
NSF Director Erich Bloch told The New York Times that FSU was chosen because of "strong long-term commitment from the state" and the "enthusiasm of the outstanding lead scientists and other participants." While MIT pledged only $14.5 million to the facility over the next five years, the state of Florida offered $58 million. The NSF will likely contribute up to $60 million over the next five years.
Three merit review panels recommended MIT for the new laboratory. They cited MIT's superior faculty and the well-established programs at MIT's magnet lab, which was founded in 1960.
But the foundation's report on its visit to the two schools criticized MIT's commitment and enthusiasm for the project. "What was very clear to me . . . was that the level of commitment of the two institutions was strikingly dissimilar," said David A. Sanchez, NSF's assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences, in a prepared statement following the recommendationWRONG: in a staff memo. The report suggested that the Francis Bitter laboratory "succeeded in spite of the MIT administration rather than because of it."
Reviewers also claimed there were relatively few faculty appointments of major users of the laboratory. In his statement, Sanchez noted that MIT had made no recruitment plans for faculty even though "the major scientific figures at MIT are near retirement." Florida State, on the other hand, has promised to create 22 tenured faculty, 20 visiting faculty and 12 research faculty positions over the next five years.
The decision to locate the lab in Florida is yet another victory for the rapidly-growing Sun Belt states, which have in recent years lured top scientists from traditional academic centers with larger salaries and better-funded laboratories. "Southern schools have been hiring good faculty, and now it's time for them to take their place with the premier institutions," said Jack E. Crow, who will head the new laboratory at FSU. "The decision is part of the growing recognition of good science in the South."
The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the University of Florida are also involved in the FSU proposal. MIT had planned to include area universities and companies as well as the national laboratories at Brookhaven, Argonne and Ames.
The establishment of a new high field magnet lab comes in response to ambitious research efforts by Japan and Western European countries, which are now considered to be at the forefront of the field. Magnet technologies have a wide range of applications, including magnetic resonance imaging in medicine, high-speed levitated trains, fusion power, and superconducting magnets. The magnetic fields generated at these labs are many times more powerful than earth's field.
If MIT is unable to reverse the NSF decision, the Francis Bitter lab, which receives approximately 60 percent of its $10 million budget from the NSF, may be in jeopardy. "There are definitely feelings of uncertainty about the future," said Kenneth D. Campbell, director of the MIT News Office.
The NSF has committed $6 million to Francis Bitter for fiscal year 1991. But Sanchez indicated that the money is intended to accommodate the lab's current users while the Florida State facility is being prepared. There are no plans to fund Francis Bitter after fiscal year 1991.