Is Florida the right place for a magnetic field?

The topic of high magnetic fields -- the technology that powers those nuclear magnetic resonance machines that are augmenting X-rays in hospitals -- is one of those arcane subjects that turns up regularly on lists of where industrial science is headed next. It is on the cutting edge of biology, promising powerful spectrometers for imaging big biological molecules and their interactions. It's in the forefront, too, of high-temperature superconductivity, offering to unlock the secrets of new materials.

No wonder then that state-of-the-art facilities are being built in Belgium, England, France, Holland and Japan. Therefore, it's not without interest that practically the last thing National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch did before stepping down as the nation's top funder of basic scientific research was to attempt to pull the plug on the National Magnet Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to send it down to Florida State University in the care of a former lieutenant.

Never mind that three scientific peer review panels had preferred MIT for the next wave of federal support. Never mind that there was not that much of a physics department in Tallahassee. Never mind that the Floridians will have to buy their magnets from the French, that the scientists who have been using the MIT center object, that it will take Florida five years to catch up to where MIT is today. Never mind that MIT has just finished a three-year, university-wide soul-searching on ways to maintain the U.S. competitive edge in world markets. Citing a "strong commitment" from the Florida Legislature to boost the university's budget, Bloch said, "MIT, while capable, does not exhibit the intense commitment needed for a first-rate laboratory." His deputy for mathematical and physical sciences, David Sanchez, added: "What was very clear to me -- and here I rely on my experience as a university provost -- was that the level of commitment of the two institutions was strikingly dissimilar."

So maybe the mandarins from MIT got caught napping? Maybe. Or maybe not.

What leaves Bloch's admiration for the "can do" spirit of the Floridians open to question are two unaddressed considerations. The first: Despite the presence of a talented chief investigator, Florida State is virtually a start-up -- and time, surely, is on the side of the competitors in other nations. Second, it's not clear that the Florida science community offers the same critical mass of other scientists seeking applications that is to be found in Cambridge, Mass., at MIT.

Bloch is not around to explain himself in any detail. And MIT, having acidly accused the director of distorting the facts in his memo, is still hoping the NSF board will reverse itself. Happily, however, Bloch sat for a lengthy interview with Physics Today before leaving office. And the result is a striking portrait of the six-year tenure of an engineer and determined planner whose last act was to take a high-stakes gamble with a leading new technology.

Bloch was an unusual choice for the top NSF job. A 32-year veteran of International Business Machines Corp., he had distinguished himself as the man who quarterbacked IBM's move into solid-state memories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, then established its chip manufacturing capability in the 1970s.

Lacking university faculty experience or even a master's degree, Bloch was, nevertheless, the first NSF director since founder Alan Waterman, 40 years ago, to serve out a full six-year term as chief. Physics Today editors wrote, "His actions often set pulses pounding. His defenders say that by concentrating on commercially applicable research, he steered NSF in the right direction, similar to the ways that Japan's government agency have moved their country into high technology for the 21st century. His detractors complain that his 32 years at IBM ... contributed to his top-down style of management and his strong-minded commitment to technology."

Sure enough, under Bloch, "centers of excellence" flourished at state universities; so did supercomputer networks and industrial liaison programs and exchanges with Japanese companies. Upset were traditional patterns of pure scientific research. Tempers flared, but with Bloch's knack for winning big NSF budget increases from the administration and then shepherding them through Congress, few scientists were interested in going beyond their own tight circles to complain. As reporters Joseph Palca and Eliot Marshall wrote in a recent issue of Science magazine, "What especially impressed Reagan administration officials was that Bloch changed NSF's image from that of a mother hen for a brood of academic scientists to an agency with a plan for improving the nation."

Does this make Erich Bloch one more Ronald Reagan cowboy, galvanizing science for commercial purposes, with insufficient respect for the unexpected zigs and zags of pure science? Did he make mostly right bets? Or mostly wrong ones? It's far too soon to tell -- but it is certainly conceivable that Bloch turned U.S. basic science in exactly the direction that was needed.

There's little doubt that Bush and his advisers view the NSF job differently from Reagan. Physics Today wrote that it is "almost certain that the next director will possess a background wholly different from Bloch's." Indeed, the Chronicle of Higher Education speculated that Walter E. Massey of the University of Chicago is about to be named -- but only after a tussle between presidential science adviser D. Allan Bromley and Chief of Staff John Sununu, who reportedly preferred another engineer.

As for Florida State University, it has certainly been on a roll for the last 15 years. Manuel Johnson, who was until recently was vice chairman of the Federal Reserve System, came from the university's economics department. Its James Madison Center for public choice economics has spurned federal largess, but still managed to grow in prominence.

Charles Reed, chancellor of the Florida state university system, who lobbied the NSF decisively for the magnetic field decision, was chief of staff to Florida Sen. Bob Graham for seven years and five years in the governor's office before that -- not surprisingly, he's won big annual increases in his budget from the Florida legislature. (Reed says he carefully avoided involving his congressional delegation with the magnet bid; on the other hand, Prof. Jack E. Crow, who is to be the center's principal investigator, worked for Erich Bloch at NSF for two and a half years as a project manager.)

Florida's success has sparked the usual cries in Massachusetts for "public-private partnerships" between universities and the legislature, such as the bid that won Bloch's nod. But does such leveraging of federal support, the shopping of science among the states to the highest bidder, really make long-term sense? Florida is nearly synonymous with boom and bust, after all. What happens to those promises when the state treasury hits a rough economy up ahead?

As one MIT official says, "This is a science? 'Trust me, I can make big things happen'? This is real estate development!"

David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.