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Panelists discuss future of university research

By Prabhat Mehta

At a panel discussion about the federal government's decision to move its national magnet laboratory from MIT to Florida, Associate Provost and Vice President for Research Kenneth A. Smith '58 said he sees "very hard times coming" for research universities like MIT.

The discussion, titled "Federal Research Funding in the '90s: A Post Mortem of the NSF Magnet Lab Decision," was held Friday morning in Room 10-250. The panelists included Smith, Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory Director J. David Litster PhD '65, Professor of Political Science Harvey M. Sapolsky, David Warsh of The Boston Globe, Michael Schrage of the Los Angeles Times, and Irwin Goodwin of Physics Today.

Smith said the National Science Foundation's decision this past August to award the new $120 million National High Magnetic Field Laboratory to Florida State University in Tallahassee was typical of the increasingly "capricious" nature of federal research funding.

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.

The National Science Board, which governs the NSF, turned down MIT's plan despite the favorable recommendations of the foundation's merit review panels. MIT unsuccessfully appealed the NSF decision in September.

Smith said the gloomy outlook on federal funding of research at MIT is attributable to the large number of young scientists nationwide who are searching for research money. The scientific field, Smith said, currently has "an appetite for more money."

However, despite the growth in federal support of scientific research over the last decade, Smith felt funding will not be able to keep up with demand. "The system must somehow learn to prioritize. . . . That means some people are going to get hurt."

Along similar lines, Goodwin of Physics Today noted, "We've doubled the number of scientists in the last 20 years." This fact, Goodwin said, is leading to a greater demand for limited federal research funds.

MIT has been "hurt by [its] own success" in increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States, he said.

Some panel members also felt that the rapid growth of the Sun Belt and the Southwest has put an increased pressure on the federal government to take some of the research dollars traditionally locked away in the Northeast and spread it around.

"Society will want a greater distribution of funds," said Sapolsky of the political science department. He described the process as the "democratization of science."

Sapolsky agreed that the current trend "does not look good for MIT."

"I don't hold a very rosy picture for the state of science funding," Goodwin said. There has been a "large amount of anxiety and not a great deal of hope for the future."

The discussion, which began at 10 am, was moved to Room

3-270 at approximately 11 am, after the Lobby 10 bomb threat cleared 10-250 [See story, page 1].