Funding plan wins isotope for MSU

December 16, 2008
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Michigan State University’s commitment to putting its own money into a cutting-edge nuclear research facility helped to sway the U.S. Department of Energy to award the project to Michigan State University, a DOE spokeswoman confirmed last week.

Neither MSU nor the DOE were releasing budget figures for Facility for Rare Isotope Beams in the wake of the announcement that delighted university and business leaders across the state. The project is expected to cost $550 million, but Congress has not yet appropriated the funding, DOE spokeswoman Bethany Shively said.

“I can’t give you the amount of the cost share. The cost share was a factor in the recommendation to select MSU,” Shively said.

MSU lobbied heavily to win the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a cutting-edge physics laboratory that would replace the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory on the East Lansing campus. The DOE picked MSU over the University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratory.

Construction is expected to begin in 2013, last for about four years and bring 5,000 jobs to Michigan, according to the Anderson Economic Group, which prepared an economic analysis for MSU’s application. The economic impact for the state would amount to $1 billion. The facility would generate $187 million in state tax revenue over 20 years.

Once the research facility is operational, it is expected to employ 400 people. Currently, MSU employs 300 at the NSCL, 100 of them students, said communications manager Geoff Koch.

While the contract is a “coup” for MSU, according to Calvin College Prof. Steve Steenwyk, chair of the physics department, local research organizations and universities were uncertain about the direct impact on West Michigan.

However, Birgit Klohs, president of local economic development organization The Right Place, said the FRIB is an important piece of research infrastructure that elevates Michigan’s stature and makes the state more attractive to companies in the life and other sciences.

“It depends, of course, on who you are pitching to,” Klohs said. “It does connect very much into the life sciences development in the area. I’m not sure you can always draw a direct straight line. This is a great win for the state. That’s exactly what we are trying to build — an additional economy in Michigan built around the life sciences.”

The leadership committee involved in supporting MSU’s bid includes local faces such as Doug DeVos, Richard DeVos, James Hackett, Michael Jandernoa, Joseph C. Papa, Dick Posthumus, Steven Van Andel and Peter Secchia, whose name graces the new MSU medical school building in Grand Rapids.

“I worked with a lot of people I don’t normally work with,” Secchia added, noting the number of Democrats and University of Michigan connections on the 44-member committee.

MSU students even got into the act, hosting a “FRIB Frenzy” rally in October, giving away “Bring FRIB To Our Crib” T-shirts and hosting “nuclei smashing demonstrations” to show how the isotope accelerator works.

The FRIB facility will have a number of economic reverberations in Michigan, first in the actual build out of the facility and the jobs associated with that, and, later with the influx of new scientists, their support staff and the ancillary support required to operate and maintain  major scientific facility, said David Hollister, president and CEO of Prima Civitas Foundation. That’s estimated to be more than $1 billion over the next decade when the multiplier effect is factored in, he noted.

Hollister, a former legislator, former mayor of Lansing and former director of the Michigan Department of Consumer & Industry Services, said he believes the FRIB facility will once and for all put to rest the image of Michigan as the Rust Belt.

“When you talk about a rare isotope accelerator, you’re talking ‘transformational.’ This is the epitome of cutting-edge research,” Hollister stressed. “We competed with the best of the best, and we won this extraordinary competition. We competed with a federal lab, for God’s sake, and beat them because of our infrastructure, the leadership of the university, the region, the work force, the science being done here, the history of the cyclotron and its excellence, and the fact that we’re second only to MIT in generating student scientists.”

People will be coming here from all over the world to visit and do science, and when they come, and if they bring their families, whether they’re going to work here for six months or six years, they are going to insist on a high quality of life, culture and education, he said.

“The ramifications are just extraordinary,” he added. He gave credit to former MSU President Peter McPherson, who started the ball rolling in this direction in 2002.  When McPherson left, President Lou Anna Simon kept running with the ball, he said.

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