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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dowsing or dousing the DUSEL?

The future of the Sanford Lab at the Homestake Goldmine, is downright puzzling, if not uncertain.  Most perplexing is the role of the National Science Foundation.  It spearheaded the development of the lab with clear intentions and promotional energy up until last December, when its executive committee, the National Science Board,  declined to contribute expected funds to its continued design.  Then, it rejected providing $19 million which would have continued the design work on transforming the mine, and the Obama administration consequently dropped the project from its budget.   

The National Science Board has not provided a specific reason for its dropping the project and leaving its erstwhile partners in the project, the Department of Energy, and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, to come up with any money needed to continue development on the project.  The National Science Board decided last December not to support the project, and the motives behind its reversal of support have not been made clear.

In the meantime, the Department of Energy came up with enough money to  keep the water pumps running in order to prevent the mine from filling up with water, and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority signed a contract last week that awards $8.1 million to a Spearfish contractor to build one of the laboratories at the 4,850 foot level.  At the same time, the Sanford Underground Lab announced that it was cutting two jobs from the design team working on the lab.

The reasons for the National Science Board's change in attitude about the project have been left to conjecture.  Over the years, we have heard many scientists say that South Dakota's emphasis on the DUSEL as an economic development scheme rather than an enterprise devoted to science was cause for concern.  This concern was informed by the actions of Barrick Gold, the mine's owner, when negotiations were going on to turn the mine over to the state.  Barrick Gold insisted that the state assume any environmental liabilities that the mine might have created.  The corporation threatened to turn off the water pumps and let the mine fill with water if it could not be relieved of any responsibility for those liabilities.  And that is exactly what it did.  Researchers who were looking for a means to conduct pure scientific research were wary and skeptical about any business corporations involvement in the underground lab, and they cited Barrick Gold's actions as the kind of result that corporate involvement could produce.  

Officers of the National Science Board said their withdrawal from the project was based upon dissatisfaction with the management model that involved the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the state Science Authority, and the involvement of the Sanford interests, which bought into the laboratory.  The problems they saw with management of the project were not specified, but a number of scientists have pointed out that the National Science Foundation supports the development of instruments, such as space telescopes, for conducting scientific research:  it does not participate in the building of research facilities in which such instruments are employed.  The emphasis of the Sanford Underground Lab as an item of infrastructure is the reason for the NSF withdrawal from the project.  An article in Science Magazine gives a more precise outline of what the NSF expects of the project:  

The project must win approval from the National Science Board, which sets policy for NSF, and observers say that board members will want good answers to three important questions before they sign off on the project. How would DUSEL stack up against other underground labs around the world? How will NSF and DOE coordinate efforts to ensure the project stays on track? And will DUSEL yield enough science to justify the investment? 

A significant development regarding the future of the laboratory is a study being conducted on the lab by The National Research Council, a unit with the National Academies which assesses and advises the government on matters of scientific research.  The report from this study is scheduled to be released this summer, and a summary of its progress was to be presented to a meeting of the National Science Board earlier this month.  The National Research Council summarizes its study this way:

Multiple research opportunities have been identified that would be enabled by a deep underground laboratory environment.  The primary drivers have been a number of physics experiments that require placing advanced detectors underground in order to protect them from cosmic rays.  However, opportunities have been identified in other fields (geosciences, engineering, environment, and biology) that would also benefit from the infrastructure needed for the physics experiments.  During the past several years, these research opportunities have been the subject of workshops, advisory committee deliberations, and National Research Council reports.  On the basis of the priority given to such activities by research communities, preliminary design activities have been undertaken by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) for developing a deep underground science and engineering laboratory (DUSEL) in Leeds, South Dakota. 

This study principally will be assessing the science questions that could be addressed if such a facility were developed, the impact that developing DUSEL would have on the research communities involved, and the need to develop such an underground program in the Unites States given that similar facilities exist or are being considered elsewhere.
Although the National Science Foundation designated the Homestake Mine as its choice for the DUSEL site, some of the other contenders for the site have not given up on development of their regional laboratory.  Scientists at the University of Minnesota have claimed that underground research can best be conducted by a group of regional labs in various locations rather than a single site, and they are aggressively promoting experiments at their Soudan laboratory in Minnesota's Iron Range country.  The National Research Council is studying all aspects of the laboratory's potential use and effectiveness for scientific research.

The future of the lab as a scientific venture is under examination, and whether it becomes part of the scientific community  or is dismissed as just another business scheme hinges on the National Research Council report and the direction that the development of the lab will take. 

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

The presence of DoE actually makes sense to me if the missions are creeping to more output-driven applications, like producing energy, for instance. You can bet DARPA has an interest, too.

Barrick would love nothing more than buy out the entire town and strip mine the Hills leaving less to wonder why they still hold properties and water rights. Canadians seem to know that South Dakota is a miner's whore with red state pimps.

Recall the recent legislation to leave oversight of more technical mining to the Feds. The Daugaards don't want the ball and there's the Grizzly Gulch impoundment yet to remediate: a mini-Berkeley Pit. There is still plenty bad to fix.

There was a great Dakota Midday on arsenic in the Whitewood Creek drainage; recent flooding has eroded even more into the Cheyenne River system.

Thanks for keeping up with this, David.

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