News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Anatomy of a piddling DUSEL

At Mt. Blogmore, there is a thread of discussion--actually, a lot of unraveling yarns--about the National Science Board's rejection of providing $29 million  for the continued operation and development of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory at the old Homestake Goldmine.  At this writing, I am in Denver which is near the site that was the main contender for being the site for the DUSEL, the Henderson Mine, in Empire, Colo.  When the competition to be designated the site was at its most intense, my Colorado connections, which I have occasion to visit at this time, were involved in creating support organizations, which included the Henderson Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory group, a consortium of university and science-related organizations which were interested in developing a laboratory for expanding research into small-particle physics.  No one outside the National Science Board knows the specific reasons and the nature of the discussion that led up to the rejection of further National Science Foundation funding, because the meeting was closed and minutes of the committee recommending the rejection will not be made public.  

What is puzzling some South Dakotans is that the NSB held its annual off-site meeting in September at Black Hills State and the DUSEL was a topic of discussion.  One must consider that the Board found something during their visit that underlies their decision not to provide funding.  The attitude in Colorado is, if the reason is left to speculation, why not ask those who are equipped to provide some informed reasons as to the problem?  NSB members have indicated that the management "model" that is guiding the development of the lab is what troubles them. 

The Mt. Blogmore post asks the question if the rejection is science or politics.  My Colorado colleagues and I would quickly answer, it is most likely from the way politics have intruded into science.  


I recall the establishment of Fermilab.  During my first year of college teaching in  1968, I received a call from the managing editor of the newspaper I had worked for asking if I would consider taking a free-lance assignment from them to cover the ground-breaking and development of the Fermilab, at the time called the National Accelerator Laboratory.  The person who had been assigned to cover it had taken another job, and I had been the higher education, science, and technology editor for the paper and had covered the background developments of university scientists' efforts to create a national accelerator laboratory.  The Fermilab assignment, as it turned out, would last more than ten years, from its ground-breaking in 1968 to 1979, when I left Illinois for South Dakota.  

For comparison purposes with the DUSEL development, it is important to know how the Fermilab came into being.  The idea for creating a national research laboratory was the logical extension of American work on nuclear technology and the exploration of space.  Most of that work became centered in California at Berkeley and Stanford, where some facilities had been built.   However, scientists in universities in the Midwest were in need of a facility in which to conduct their research and experiments.  The need for a laboratory to which scientists from throughout the U.S. could have access was required if the scientific community was to carry forward its  investigations and experiments in physics.  Scientists throughout the country were developing plans for the design and engineering of such a laboratory, and the need for such a facility was recognized as crucial to the advancement of science. 

 A group of Midwestern universities organized in 1952 to promote the development of a physics research laboratory.  In 1965, President Johnson's science advisory committee recommended the development of a laboratory and the creation of a group composed of the leading universities and scientists in the country to guide and oversee its development.  The original group of universities expanded into a consortium called the Universities Research Association.  From 1967 until 2006, the URA was the prime contractor for the construction and development of the Fermilab. The group currently  consists of 86 universities.  In 2006, it joined with the University of Chicago to form the organization that now oversees Fermilab.


The development of the Fermilab was attended by much political wrangling.  However, it was the politics of science and regional interests, not the politics of  partisan bigotry that engages so many commenters at the Mt. Blogmore site.  As with the DUSEL, there was much contention over where to situate a lab.  At the time the predecessor to the Department of Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission, was the major sponsor and promoter.  As developments reached the point of construction of the laboratory was imminent, the assumption was that the new lab would be built in California.  That assumption was challenged by scientists throughout the country, who thought a more central and convenient location was needed to provide them access--and to extend research opportunities throughout the country.  The AEC invited proposals for potential sites and received more than 200 applications.  It chose the site at Weston, Illinois, 27 miles northwest of Chicago.


There was politics involved in the choice of the site.  Lyndon Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.,  played prominent roles in the site selection.  As my notes from my coverage of the site choice are 700 miles away, I am a bit hazy about the political maneuvers, but I recall Dirksen using his considerable power to bring the site to Illinois.  In essence, he met with academic leaders when they were squabbling over the choice of site and made clear that if they wanted a laboratory to work in, they had best quit the squabbling over personal preferences and get to work on the lab wherever it was located.  Another aspect of the site selection was disputed by the head of the AEC, but was widely circulated among those with knowledge of the site selection.  That point was that Sen. Dirksen made a deal with Pres. Johnson to support Johnson's civil rights legislation if the lab would be built in  Illinois.  At any event, the Illinois site was chosen.


This did not set well with some scientists.  One of the Berkeley scientists who was asked to head the development of the lab thought the Illinois site was unsuitable and turned down the offer.  The complaint of some scientists, as is now with the Homestake site, was that rural Illinois was not a place where top scientists would like to come and work.  The irony was, however, that the site is only 27 miles from Chicago, is central within a few hours drive to many of the Midwest's universities, and is, in fact, part of the suburban Chicago metropolitan area.

The 6,800-acre Fermilab
The man who was chosen to head the development of the lab, Robert Wilson, was a Cornell University physicist who provided some of the design concepts for the laboratory.  He determined to make the Fermilab a campus that would meet the needs of scientists throughout the nation and would be a model of good science and good neighbor.  


Over the years, the lab has had its problems with funding and setting up experiments.  I recall when the accelerator was nearing completion and undergoing test runs, it was plagued by magnets blowing up when water seeping through the underground roof dripped on them.  As with all science, there are always problems to overcome.


The notable contrast, however, between the development of the Fermilab and the efforts to create the DUSEL at the Sanford Lab in Lead is in the involvement of scientists.  Scientists saw the potential for the old Homestake Goldmine as a deep underground lab, and early in the proposal, they were almost unanimous in their support.  However, when the owners, Barrick Gold, could not get the degree of freedom from environmental liabilities they wanted in negotiations with the state, they turned off the water pumps and let the mine fill with water.  All but a few scientists withdrew their interest and support.  They saw that corporate petulance was a controlling factor and the political forces, both state and national, could not find a way to resolve the dispute.  Fermilab did not have corporate factors to deal with in its development.  The question posed by my Colorado colleagues is why scientists have not returned their support for the DUSEL and are so tentative and reserved.


The answer might well be the organization involved in the development of the DUSEL, the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.  Its  leadership is composed of South Dakota business people with two out-of-state scientists sitting as sort of tokens on the board.  It does not reflect the kind of leadership that represents the knowledge and discipline of science, or much in the way of regional academic resources.  The Colorado scientists suggest that the contrast between the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority and the Universities Research Association, which was made prime contractor for the Fermilab, seems the obvious reason that the National Science Board will not invest further funding in the development of the DUSEL.  Science seems to play a subsidiary role.


As for politics, they are a consideration.  One commenter on Mt. Blogmore suggests that the NSB is withholding its funding in retaliation for the elections lost by Tom Daschle and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.  To scientists, that is an offensive and hopelessly ignorant comment.  But it does express some of the attitudes that form the environment in which a laboratory would have to work.  


The people of South Dakota have spoken in their elections, and continue to speak on blogs and newspaper comments.  And the fact is that people are listening, particularly people who have to make choices about the future of science.  They must ask if the old Homestake mine is the kind of place where scientists want to invest their futures and the future of science.  The people of South Dakota are supplying the answer.

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