The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stung by rejection when the National Science Foundation awarded Florida State University a $60 million contract to develop a much-coveted "national magnet laboratory," yesterday reacted with outrage. MIT charged the science agency with misrepresenting its commitment to the goal and asked the foundation's governing board to reconsider.

Hanging in the balance is the prestige of MIT, long considered a powerhouse in science, and the ascendance of enthusiastic upstarts such as Florida State University. Florida State showed in its bid for the contract that it is prepared to lay out considerable sums to buy the best faculty and latest equipment.

Also at issue is the decision by NSF officials to go with Florida State even though several scientific review boards recommended MIT.

NSF's decision would effectively transfer the facility to Florida State. The lab is to do research on powerful magnetic fields such as those produced by high temperature superconductors. Many experts regard advances in magnet research as essential to new generations of many different technologies.

NSF officials, including former director Erich Bloch, who left last week, said they choose Florida State because of the university administration's commitment to the project, their financial support and their overall enthusiasm.

"We understood very clearly that MIT had the lead in magnet research as now configured. Florida State was essentially a newcomer. But in overall commitment of the institute over the long run, we felt that Florida {State} would be the premier magnet lab," said NSF assistant director David Sanchez.

However, in letters to the National Science Foundation's governing board, MIT president Paul Gray yesterday charged that the NSF officials presented the National Science Board, which made the final decision, with an "incomplete and unbalanced" comparision between MIT and Florida State and suggested the "narrow lead" the United States holds in magnet technology would be threatened by moving the laboratory to Florida.

Florida State scientists and administrators were not happy with the MIT assault, which included a 45-page package of materials to the NSF governing board and the media.

"They're going to depend on the press and the media to make the decisions and not the NSF and the peer review process," said Charles Reed, chancellor of the state university system of Florida. Reed said he was surprised that a world-class scientific institute like MIT would carry on so.

As for "buying" the magnet lab, Reed said he just wanted to make sure that the researchers at MIT and Florida State were "playing on a level field."

MIT officials said yesterday the institute would contribute $37 million to the laboratory, though NSF officials were confused about where that figure came from. Florida State offered $58 million.

NSF officials said yesterday they still believe Florida State is the better choice, though the 21 members of the NSF governing board are free to reconsider. NSF officials acknowledged that scientific panels had nominated MIT narrowly over Florida State, but said it was a close competition.

In a memo to its board, NSF officals stated "the level of commitment of the two institutions was strikingly dissimilar. Reviewers stated that the present facility at MIT existed in spite of the university's administration, who regarded the facility as peripheral."

David Litster, director of MIT's Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory, said yesterday, "we thought we were highly committed."