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NSF Grants University of Florida New Magnet Lab: 4: 4

By Dave Watt
Sports Editor
____The Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory narrowly averted a complete shutdown last year, winning a $27 million grant from the National Science Foundation which will fund the lab through September 1995.

The grant serves as a consolation prize for the Bitter Lab's 1989 loss of a $120 million grant to build a National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (NHMFL) to Florida State University.

Delays in construction of the new NHMFL led the NSF to award this smaller grant to MIT. The new lab, under construction in Tallahassee, Fla., will take four years to build, instead of the two years originally planned.

Also, scientists working in the field protested a temporary move to Grenoble, France, citing the high cost of living in Europe. The NSF had asked Bitter Lab scientists to stay in Grenoble for a year while the new lab in Florida was being built.

The decision to fund the Bitter Lab until the FSU facility is complete marks a complete reversal of the NSF's original plan. Before the construction delays, the NSF had intended to end funding for the Bitter Lab by last October.

But the Bitter Lab's days are numbered. "If Florida State has a working magnet lab [by 1995], Bitter will probably be phased out," said Donald T. Stevenson PhD '50, a former associate director of the lab.

FSU grant controversial

Following the advice of then-NSF Director Erich Bloch, the National Science Board announced on Aug. 17, 1990 that FSU would be awarded the $120 million NHMFL grant. FSU and MIT had submitted very similar grant proposals, and MIT immediately protested, citing repeated reviews of the MIT proposal which had judged it technically superior. Former MIT President Paul E. Gray '54 wrote that the NSF staff reports evaluating the two grant proposals were biased against MIT.

But an NSF administrator said MIT's support for their proposal was lackluster. "What was very clear to me . . . was that the level of commitment of the two institutions was strikingly dissimilar," wrote David A. Sanchez, an assistant director of the NSF, in a staff memo from August 1990.

MIT sent a 45-page packet to each member of the National Science Board in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the NSB's decision. Users of the Bitter Lab also sent a petition to the NSB in protest, but to no avail.

In addition to maintaining the Bitter Lab, $9 million from the new grant will be used to construct a 45 Tesla magnet, which will be transported to the Florida facility when it is completed.