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MIT appeals NSF decision

By Prabhat Mehta

MIT on Wednesday sent 45-page packages to all 21 members of the National Science Foundation's decision-making National Science Board, asking them to "review and reconsider" their Aug. 17 decision to locate the new National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Though NSF officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, representatives have previously said they consider it unlikely that the NSB will reverse its decision and go with MIT.

The packages contain three letters -- by President Paul E. Gray '54, Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory Director J. David Litster PhD '65, and Vice President for Research Kenneth A. Smith '58 -- which blame the decision on two staff memoranda circulated within the NSF.

"If the staff summaries had presented a fair and adequate comparison of the two proposals, we would not contest the NSB decision," wrote Gray in his letter. "Regrettably, this was not the case."

According to Gray's letter, the memoranda "failed to give . . . important data significant to the decision; presented incomplete and unbalanced comparisons between the two principal competitors on key issues; [and] provided essentially no analysis of the complex technical considerations in the proposals and their differing consequences for participants in the field and for US leadership in it."

The memoranda -- written by then NSF Director Erich Bloch on Aug. 6 and NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences David A. Sanchez on Aug. 17 -- recommended that the NSB overturn the peer review process and give the new magnet lab to Florida State because of its enthusiasm and commitment.

The board rejected MIT's proposal -- which involves upgrading the Francis Bitter laboratory -- despite the recommendations of three separate merit review panels.

In his recommendation, Sanchez claimed that "the level of commitment of the two institutions was strikingly dissimilar." He felt that FSU, "while not having on board at present the scientists of the quality of those at MIT, was clearly committed to creating a national center of excellence."

In contrast, he noted that "reviewers stated that [Francis Bitter] existed in spite of the University's administration, who regarded it as peripheral."

Bloch's memo argued that "at the $60,000,000 level [of funding], which is currently recommended by NSF, it is evident . . . that MIT would perhaps not be able to . . . create a first rate laboratory, thereby placing the long-term high magnetic field capability of the U.S. at risk.

"On the other hand," Bloch asserted, "the higher risk [Florida State] proposal offers strong, long-term support from the State of Florida, and thus considerable scientific and engineering potential in terms of future scientific and technical personnel, and long-term funding stability."

MIT challenges

NSF assertions

The three MIT letters challenged some of the basic assertions made by Bloch and Sanchez in their recommendation memos. While the NSF questioned MIT's commitment, Litster said, "The fact is that we made it very clear to the NSF staff . . . that MIT was committed to establishing the best high field magnet laboratory in the world. . . ."

The NSF also questioned MIT's commitment to recruiting new personnel, but Litster claimed that "[w]hile FSU as a start-up operation will necessarily be faced with the need to recruit essentially an entirely new faculty and staff, MIT will not."

Furthermore, MIT disputed the cost-sharing estimates made by the NSF. The Institute said it will provide $37 million from its own resources and $23 million from other sources for a total of $60 million -- not the $18 million stated in Bloch's memo. Thus, since FSU pledged $58 million in support, cost-sharing is not a legitimate issue, said Litster.

The NSF plans to spend $60 million over the next five years on the new lab. In addition, the Francis Bitter lab will get $6 million for fiscal year 1991 to accommodate users during the construction of the new facility at FSU. After 1991, the MIT lab will likely be forced to shut down.

MIT claimed that the real cost of the new lab, given the extra support for Francis Bitter, would actually be $66 million -- closer to the $68 million figure MIT requested from the NSF in its proposal.

With that money, Litster claimed, MIT could provide "a much greater variety of magnets, higher fields, and (after two years, following only a three to four month interruption) . . . twice as much user research capacity as the current laboratory."

The Florida State lab, on the other hand, "would significantly interrupt users' research by a) sending users to Europe beginning in 1992 [between the shutdown of Francis Bitter and the completion of the Florida State facility], b) providing only half the existing capacity to accommodate users in the U.S. beginning in 1993, and c) providing only 80 percent of the existing capacity in the U.S. after five years."

The FSU proposal involves the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the University of Florida. MIT's plan includes area universities and companies as well as the national laboratories at Brookhaven, NY, Argonne, IL, and Ames, IA, and the University of Wisconsin.