Magnet Lab’s record of excellence helps sway National Science Board

The National Science Board has decided it will accept a renewal proposal from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory rather than open a national competition for the honor of operating the nation’s magnet lab. This decision means the magnet lab will remain in Tallahassee for at least the next five years.

"The decision to renew is a testament to the magnet lab’s record of success in scientific research," said Gregory S. Boebinger, lab director. "While this is wonderful news, funding for scientific research remains very competitive, so we still have to make a strong case about the importance of the magnet lab for the nation."

The case for funding will be made over the next six months as the lab’s scientific leaders craft the renewal proposal. In it, the lab will compete against its own record of success, against the research successes of other magnet labs around the world, and against the best science done at any national lab anywhere in the world. Specifics of the proposal still are under development, and the lab is collaborating with external advisers ranging from Nobel laureates to industry leaders. The proposal will be submitted in August.

Since the original award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1990, the magnet lab has been funded in five-year cycles. The laboratory currently receives about $25 million a year from the NSF. In addition, approximately $16 million is provided through Florida State University from a combination of contractually required state matching funds and other state contributions, and an additional $6 million comes from individual investigator grants.

Although national leaders are starting to recognize the importance of increased funding for science and technology, many in the scientific community are adopting a wait-and-see approach. In 2004, for example, Congress cut the budget for the NSF just two years after endorsing a plan to double the amount given to the agency.

"When budgets are tight, long-term research often seems less pressing than immediate needs," said Boebinger, "but every farmer knows that you should never eat your seed corn, even when this year is looking pretty tough."

Fortunately for the lab, the state of Florida was in the beginning and continues to be a strong and forward-thinking supporter of the lab. Kirby Kemper, vice president for research at FSU, said he believes the state played a key role in the National Science Board’s decision not to open the lab for competition.

"The Legislature’s willingness to keep investing in the magnet lab and its growth demonstrates that Florida is committed to the lab and understands the importance of fundamental research," Kemper said.

The state’s support for the magnet lab often is hailed as one of the driving reasons behind the National Science Board’s decision in 1990 to bring the facility, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Tallahassee and FSU. A 2003 report from the Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis at FSU calculated that for every $1 the state invests in the magnet lab, $3.50 is generated in the state’s economy. (An update of that report is scheduled for release this spring.)

The magnet lab has become an integral part of the local and state economy. Because the laboratory is a user facility, it brings in scientists from around the world who stay anywhere from three days to three months. Those users, visitors and conference attendees accounted for more than 3,000 hotel room nights in 2005.

Infrastructure upgrades scheduled for completion in the fall of 2006, made possible thanks to a $10-million appropriation from the Legislature in 2004, will allow the lab to increase the time available for experimentation using its magnets, which means it can accommodate more outside users. And some of the items to be included in the renewal proposal also will allow more users to conduct research at the lab.

While the scientific advances the lab makes possible aren’t as easy to quantify as the economic ones, they are no less valuable.

"Without past investments in basic science and high-magnetic-field research, the world would not have MRI machines or the transistors and computer hard drives that currently spark the information age," Boebinger said. "Our plan in the renewal proposal is to highlight the science and make the strongest case possible for its continued, and expanded, funding."

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory develops and operates state-of-the-art, high-magnetic-field facilities that faculty and visiting scientists and engineers use for research in physics, biology, bioengineering, chemistry, geochemistry, biochemistry and materials science. The laboratory—with branches in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Los Alamos, N.M.—is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the state of Florida and is the only facility of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. To learn more, please visit