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NSB denies MIT magnet appeal

By Prabhat Mehta

The National Science Board has refused MIT's request that it "review and reconsider" its Aug. 17 decision to award the new National High Magnetic Field Laboratory to Florida State University in Tallahassee.

In a letter sent out last Thursday, Mary L. Good, chairman of the board, which governs the National Science Foundation, informed President Paul E. Gray '54 that "the Board has decided to reaffirm its decision to authorize award of the NHMFL."

Good's letter likely puts to end a controversy which has not seen precedent within the NSF. MIT's Sep. 5 appeal of the NSB decision to locate the new lab at FSU was the first time an NSF decision had been contested. But with Good's reaffirmation, which MIT released on Saturday, "the board's decision is final," NSF spokesman Alan Levitt told The Boston Globe.

Nevertheless, MIT may still challenge the decision. In his response to Good's letter, Gray wrote, "I am sure you understand our disappointment and our interest in pursuing this matter further."

The $60 million in federal money which will now go to FSU for the new facility will result in the eventual phasing out of federal support for the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory, which MIT had planned to upgrade in its proposal to the NSF.

Currently, $6 million is slated for the MIT facility to accommodate current staff and users for fiscal year 1991. Unless alternate funding sources are pursued after that time, the MIT laboratory will very likely have to shut down.

After 1991, the NSF hopes that users will turn to laboratories overseas until 1993, when the FSU laboratory will be able to provide half the current capacity of the MIT lab. FSU says it will reach 80 percent of present capacity by 1995.

Members of the Francis Bitter lab Users' Committee, which represents the interests of the more than 300 scientists using the facility, have expressed concern over the availability of magnet research facilities between the expiration of federal support for MIT's lab and the completion of the new Florida State facility.

A letter dated Sep. 11 from the Users' Committee's chairman, University of Pennsylvania Professor C. D. Graham Jr., to the members of the NSB stated that the Users' Committee "believe[s] the decision to award the new National High Field Facility to Florida State will have a severe negative impact (`catastrophic' might be the proper word) on Magnet Lab Users for many years, and perhaps indefinitely." [See box on page 11 for text of letter.]

Graham's letter, which was endorsed by the other members of the committee, specifically criticized the plan to relocate scientists abroad. In the absence of

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extra funding for transportation costs, the letter stated, "use of high-field facilities abroad is an empty promise."

Gray's letter to Good also contained sharp criticism of the NSF's "summary dismissal" of MIT's appeal, and cited the Users' Committee letter as evidence of broader opposition, as well. "While you may not have been persuaded by our request for review of what we believe was a seriously flawed process and unfair judgment, I am appalled that you could take so hasty an action without taking time to consider and evaluate the views of the larger scientific community and the users of high magnetic field facilities," he wrote.

Francis Bitter, located at 155 Albany St., is still considered the world's premier high-field magnet research center, though programs in France and Japan have advanced considerably in recent years.

The federal government has placed a high priority on magnet technologies, citing the wide range of potential applications for future industries.

Applications of supermagnets, with fields several hundred thousand times stronger than the Earth's, include magnetic resonance imaging in medicine, high-speed levitated trains, fusion power, and superconducting magnets.