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Magnet Lab Puts Florida State U. on Map

State Officials Exuberant in Wake of Coup Over MIT


TALLAHASSEE, Florida--Advances in medical technology, computers and mass transportation aside, the national magnet laboratory scheduled to open its doors in 1993 probably will keep Tallahassee utility bills down.

That's because the laboratory will use 20 to 30 megawatts of power--roughly a third of the power used by the entire city--to create high-level magnetic fields. That boost to the city's biggest business, selling electricity, will help hold down costs.

The laboratory, which has been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for almost three decades, will also put Tallahassee on the scientific map, according to exuberant Florida educators.

They say they used enthusiasm, vision and commitment to attract the lab to Tallahassee from Cambridge.

They admit it was a close race. But the pride and confidence they've displayed since getting word last month that they won doesn't seem measurably diminished by the fight the prestigious engineering school is still waging to keep the laboratory.

"Sour grapes. Too little too late," Florida Chancellor Charles Reed said last week. "They do good science at MIT but on this I don't think that they have paid as much attention to it as they needed to."

There doesn't seem to be much danger of that in Tallahassee, where a common word to describe the importance of winning the lab is "historic."

"This may be one of the biggest things that has happened to our university system," Reed told the governor and Cabinet.

As for the impact on Tallahassee, Reed spokesman Patrick Riordan compared the establishment of the lab to the founding of the city in the early 19th century. The site was picked to serve as the capital of Florida in 1821 because it marked the halfway mark between the population centers of Pensacola and St. Augustine.

The new National High Magnetic Field Laboratory will be located at Florida State University but run by a consortium that includes the University of Florida in Gainesville and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which is run by California's state universities.

Florida officials received the official contract for the lab, which will get $60 million to $70 million in federal funds over the next five years, on Friday.

Also on Friday MIT got something from the National Science Foundation--a brief letter from Mary Gold, chairman of the board that governs the National Science Foundation, saying the independent government agency that supports scientific research with public funds would not change its mind about the lab.

MIT, in turn, protested that second decision.

"When you lose a grant it's a painful experience, but the only appropriate, professional thing to do is move on to the next grant. That's what MIT should be doing," Riordan said Saturday.

Florida's public universities have been in that position. Two years ago the state came close to winning an industry-sponsored semiconducting research center that ended up going to Texas.

The showing Florida made in that contest, however, helped establish its credibility to win a bigger prize, Riordan said.

"I'd rather have the magnetic lab," he said. "First of all, the magnetic business is bigger than semiconductors."

Florida officials think the emphasis they put on medical applications helped them win the lab. Research with high-power magnetic fields can improve magnetic resonance imagery, which means physicians will be able to make more accurate diagnoses with less-invasive examinations.

Another possible outcome of magnetic research could be improving the transmission of energy by finding materials that conduct power more efficiently. For instance, one big power plant in the middle of a desert might serve 25 states if there was no loss of power along the lines, Riordan said.

"There's large industrial applications," Riordan said, ranging from moving railroad boxcars around more easily to exploiting the power of electromagnetism inside an atom.

Tallahassee will join a select group of cities in the world with magnetic laboratories, according to Jack Crow, director of the Florida consortium. Others include Moscow; Amsterdam; Grenoble, France, and cities in Poland and Japan.

"This puts us on the map," Reed said.

The chancellor's office is already getting calls from researchers and companies all over the country, from Boston to Silicon Valley in California, who are interested in using or being near the lab, Riordan said.

Some 400 scientific teams from all over the world will visit the lab each year. The schools have also promised to offer rotating yearlong positions to 20 foreign scientists. The state, which has committed about $58 million over the next five years, will have 34 full-time faculty.

The growth impact on Tallahassee won't be dramatic in terms of numbers, Riordan predicted. But the people who do move to Florida's capital will be professionals who bring with them increased spending power.

Reed said he isn't worried that the National Science Foundation will reverse itself.

"I think the problem is not that Florida won or was awarded the national lab," the chancellor said Saturday. "It's being viewed by MIT and the administration as we took it away. I guess that has never happened to MIT before. What they're going to have to learn is other university systems can do good science."

Regardless of what MIT does, Reed said Florida will move ahead on a with its plans to build or renovate a laboratory, hire scientists and confer with researchers who will be using the facility.

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