Utahns could pull the plug on the University of Utah's artificial heart program if they approve the tax limitation initiatives this November, warns a local scientist.

Dr. Donald B. Olsen said the initiatives would have little early impact on the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the Division of Artificial Organs, where the heart research is conducted. The institute's research grants are primarily federally funded.But many U. scientists, who lend their expertise to the artificial heart program, might not fare as well. Their salaries and research contracts, supported largely by state funds, could be slashed if the initiatives pass, Olsen said.

"If those people, because of the tax initiatives, leave the university, the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah will not survive," he said. "The availability of this expertise held by these individuals (who are not full-time institute employees) makes the Institute for Biomedical Engineering very competitive in receiving awarded grants and contracts.

"In their absence, we would lose this competitive edge," Olsen warned. "We may be compelled to move to another university setting where they have a strong infracenter and resources with outstanding people - like we have at the University of Utah - who would help position us to be more competitive in acquiring grants and contracts to do our work."

Greg Beesley, head of the Tax Limitation Coalition, called Olsen's threats "scare tactics."

"We are talking 3.8 percent to 6 percent maximum cuts in total budgets of the state, county and city," he said. "If 6 percent is going to cause ruin, pray tell what do they do with the other 94 percent of the money? Burn it?"

Beesley said Olsen "probably knows about hard research and biomedical engineering, but probably has never looked at the figures on budgets or the figures on cuts. And he is making statements of wild generalities."

It was at the U. in 1982 that the world's first permanent artificial heart was implanted into the chest of Seattle dentist Barney Clark. Clark died in March 1983, and Dr. William DeVries, the only physician who has federal approval to implant the device, left Utah to pursue his speciality in Kentucky.

Research on the Utah 100 Heart, another pneumatically driven artificial heart, has continued at the U., but its beat has been stronger at some periods than others.

In January the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in the National Institutes of Health granted $5,592,000 to the U. - one of the largest federal contracts ever awarded. Four months later, institute director Dr. Claude Lenfant stunned investigators with the news that 51/2-year research grants to four contractors - a total of $22.4 million - were being withdrawn so research could focus on patient trials of an artificial device that can assist or substitute for human heart's left ventricle.

Many predicted that the institute's decision meant doom for the program. But new blood was pumped into heart when NIH announced in June it had reversed its decision and restored funding to the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering to develop a totally implantable, electrically powered artificial heart.

The institute's change of heart was criticized in the New York Times, which, in an editorial this summer, reported that "over 24 years, this Dracula of a project has leeched $240 million from the taxpayers.

"The artificial heart represents medical technology at its most mindless. Even if the machine could be made to work, it would bring limited benefit to a few at vast cost, just the opposite of what medicine should achieve," the editorial read. Another article, critical of the heart program, appeared recently in the Time's Sunday Magazine.

Olsen says the New York Times has been the only newspaper in the country that has been consistently negative about the artificial heart.

"From a scientific point of view, a continuation of research toward a totally implantable artificial heart has the support of virtually all of the scientific entities in the United States," he said.

Olsen hopes Utahns will show the same support for the program by defeating the tax initiatives.

"When people think of Salt Lake City, the University of Utah, and the State of Utah, the artificial heart is one of the preeminent identities," he said. "I frankly am very concerned about the tax initiatives and hope we can convey to the people that this aggressive tax rollback would have a tremendous impact on the state."

Olsen used a simple analogy to convey his message.

"We all agree that we occasionally need to remodel situations. But if I am going to remodel the kitchen, I don't start out by hiring a bulldozer to push the entire house down," he said. "Let's identify what we would like to do within the kitchen, but keep the bathroom and bedroom intact while we try to remodel the kitchen.

"The sweeping movement of this tax rollback is not too different from knocking an entire house down and hoping that something great and wonderful will spontaneously replace it," Olsen said. "My message to Utahns is: It will not."