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Top Scientists Lobby in Defense Of National Institute of Standards

By Sarah Neville
The Washington Post

They are more at home in the rarefied world of science than the robust milieu of politics.

But Monday some of the nation's top scientists quit their labs to turn lobbyists for a day in defense of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Members of the American Physical Society released letters signed by 25 Nobel prize winners and 18 presidents and directors of scientific societies at a news conference, in what public affairs director Michael Lubell described as an "unprecedented" show of anger by the ordinarily sedate scientific community.

They were protesting plans which could lead to the elimination or sale of the Institute's laboratories. Measurements and standards techniques perfected there, the laureates claimed, "have been estimated to save the nation billions of dollars annually through their use in industries such as electrical power, semi-conductor manufacturing, medical, agricultural, food processing and building materials."

"The loss of these laboratories would be a serious blow to our long-term technological capability and to our national enterprise in basic research," they said.

Under the House appropriations bill that funds the Commerce Department, NIST would receive $263 million for research in the 1996 financial year. Under the Senate bill, funding would be $222 million. Current funding is $247 million.

But Lubell, Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York, said irregardless of funding, their fears for NIST's future stemmed from bills introduced in the House and the Senate in June. Those bills call for abolishing the Commerce Department and state that within 18 months of its demise the labs should be sold to private sector buyers. That would "place their future at extreme risk," said Lubell.

The latest threat to NIST comes in a bill passed last week by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee which would eliminate the department and NIST laboratories but transfer their standards function to a new independent agency.

By failing to mention the research function of the NIST laboratories in that legislation, the senators had created "great uncertainty about the future of that activity," Lubell claimed.

Implicit in his remarks was the classic scientist's distaste for politicial quick hits - a feeling echoed by the scientists who one by one delivered presentations that made few concessions to a pre-doctoral audience.

Norman Ramsay, Higgins Professor of Physics Emeritus at Harvard, spoke of the NIST supported and operated lab at Boulder, Colorado where they have achieved "the coldest temperature in the universe which is less than two tenths of one millionth of a degree absolute "