If the University of Utah's National Cold Fusion Institute doesn't get another dime from outside sources, the existing staff - spending its remaining $1.7 million sparingly - can continue probing the phenomenon until July 30, 1991, the institute director said Thursday.
But the operation will soon come under the scrutiny of two committees charged with doing a financial audit and scientific review of the facility.The reviews, demanded by disgruntled members of the U. science faculty, were put into motion Thursday by the state Fusion/Energy Advisory Council that oversees taxpayers' $5 million fusion investment.
The council plans to establish selection committees for both audits by the end of next week, with the reviews to be completed by the council's next meeting in late August.
"From our point of view, it's our responsibility to know that the funds are being properly used, and measurable (scientific) progress is one of the variables in determining if the money is being well used," said council chairman Raymond L. Hixson.
"I doubt the review will reveal anything of consequence but it's appropriate that we do it."
Hugo Rossi, dean of the U. College of Science, and 22 faculty members requested the reviews after learning that a $500,000 "anonymous" donation to the institute actually came from the U. itself.
Rossi said Thursday that other alleged improprieties, "some probable, many others impossible," prompted the call for the reviews.
"On the issue of cold fusion the University of Utah has been under attack for the past 14 months," Rossi told council members. "The only defense from this attack is our strictest adherence to honesty. That defense is seen to be crumbling."
Rossi emphasized that the reviews are not intended to resolve the international cold fusion furor existing since electrochemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced in 1989 that they had achieved a sustained nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature.
"Its purpose is to study the research program at the NCFI in order to evaluate the significance of this program, the progress achieved to date, and evidence for success of the proposed research," said Rossi.
"No parallel is to be drawn to a grand jury. Integrity could hardly be restored by such perceptions," he said.
While institute director Fritz Will said he welcomes the reviews, he urged the state to consider only an external review team consisting of unbiased recognized experts in "relevant scientific fields." Will noted the irony of Rossi's request for the audit, since the dean had been the institute's first director and had authorized the majority of the expenditures. Until Friday when he resigned, Rossi was also a member of the institute board of trustees.
Rossi argued that U. faculty members should be included on the review team. He said he didn't understand the statement "that it is impossible to find an objective committee among my faculty."
But some council members questioned whether the latest controversy wasn't ignited merely by scientific jealously.
"Unfortunately, scientists are human in many respects. They are not as cold and objective in everything as they in their own disciplines," said Hixson, who said that all parties concerned must be involved in the review process or it will not be effective.
The council agreed that the selection committee for the scientific review panel would be be chaired by a member of the council and composed of two members each from the council, the institute and the university faculty. One member of the U. Institutional Council and the State Board of Regents would be observers.
The selection committee must reach a consensus on review panel membership. Members of the financial audit and management review panel will be appointed by Hixson.
Meanwhile, it will be business as usual at the National Cold Fusion Institute - despite the latest attack on the research conducted there.
"Although my pride has been hurt and the thought of resignation as director has entered my mind repeatedly these last few days, I have decided to stand by the NCFI in these difficult times," Will said. "The NCFI has accumulated an excellent scientific record during this one year of its existence as evidenced by the usual standards of scientific achievement, such as publications, scientific presentations, grant proposals and the initiation of a three-year research and development proposal."
Will, however, believes it's essential that the institute loosen its ties with the university and begin conducting business like an independent corporation. That is, if it is to attract corporate investors.