Editorial: Saddle up and save rare isotope facility

Michigan’s congressional delegation, hard put to collaborate on much besides autos and the Great Lakes, needs to put one more item on its unity list: the suddenly endangered Facility for Rare Isotope Beams planned for Michigan State University.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu hinted during a visit to Detroit last week that the project might be among those falling victim to budget cuts. Indeed, the Department of Energy is taking some of the proportionately bigger hits in the first round of cutbacks.

It will be a sad day if this cutting edge research, on a scale that only the federal government can support, dies in a fit of austerity. The rare isotope beam project has a $600-million price tag, to create what in effect is a giant laboratory to test what atoms do when they collide. The experiments have the potential to change the current understanding of the universe, and they are bound to yield practical applications in medicine as well as energy.

But the hope the project gave to Michigan was of even greater magnitude. The state’s dependence on manufacturing has left it with few other resources on which to rebuild its tattered economy. Jump-starting other avenues of economic activity is crucial, and the rare isotope beam project has huge potential to draw talent and to spin off a wide range of other activity.

MSU’s success in attaining the facility — FRIB for short — offers Michigan yet another opportunity to transition from an auto/manufacturing dependent state to one with a healthier mix of jobs. The high intellectual caliber of the project also provides a new way for Michigan to increase its brainpower and new models for students to stay in school and pursue science and engineering.

Perhaps no state can lay a legitimate claim to be “owed” something by the federal government. But Michigan, after decades of being a donor state to the federal government, certainly deserved every bit of sympathy it got when the auto industry teetered on the precipice — in part because of the cavalier attitude the nation as a whole has to the value of maintaining a manufacturing base.

The least the federal government can do now is make good on its promise, and Michigan’s senators and representatives in Washington have to hold the Obama administration accountable for this.