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Friday, September 4, 2015

Sanford Lab taking the nuclear option. Perhaps.

When some scientists first proposed that the Homestake Goldmine be converted into an underground science and engineering laboratory, almost every small-particle physicist in the nation signed on in support.  So did a number of people who were involved in the scientific community, as their interest and support was invited by scientists.  As a former writer for a research and development company, who later covered science and technology as a newspaper editor, then taught some technical writing in college, professional organizations I belonged to urgently encouraged me to sign on in support.  After becoming acquainted with the potential that scientists saw for the country and the scientific community and hearing my colleagues in science enthuse over the prospects, I added my name to the list of supporters.

The potential of the former goldmine to provide a unique facility for scientific research was and is enormous.  From the viewpoint of environmental scientists, the conversion would turn a deep scar in the earth into an intellectual beauty mark.  And for the higher  learning community in South Dakota, it would give the state an opportunity to contribute in some way to advanced knowledge.  The state's higher education system has been most notable for its lack of support for scholarly research.

But as discussions about what was needed to make a research laboratory out of a mine proceeded, the proposal hit a barrier familiar to people who have dealt with mining companies.  The owner of Homestake, Barrick Gold, stipulated that it wanted to be relieved of any liability for environmental damage caused by the mine.  Although the Homestake Mine in Lead was scheduled for closing in 2001,  Barrick Gold bought the company that year for a $2.3 billion stock deal.  Homestake, with headquarters in Walnut Creek, Ca., was an international company with operations in Canada, Australia, Chile, and the U.S.  The goldmine in Lead did not figure in its operations.  When the proposition to turn the mine into an underground research facility became widely supported, Barrick Gold made the offer to donate it to the state.

However, it made that offer with the stipulation that it not be held liable for any environmental or public safety issues caused by the mine.  As with all mines, there were concerns about the pollution and toxicity of mine wastes and how the expenses for clean up would become the responsibility of the state and federal governments.  Led by Tom Daschle, legislators from South Dakota, proposed and passed federal legislation to relieve the company of liability, although there was strong opposition to it.  Barrick Gold did not find the legislation adequate. The company had indicated that it planned to shut off the water pumps that kept the mine dry if some resolution was not reached, and it did so.

When the pumps were shut off and the mine began to flood, the support for the conversion of Homestake disintegrated. Scientists who had experiments for which the mine would be ideal looked for other places to do their research.  Eventually, after the state came up with a $10 million fund and insurance to cover liability, it received the mine from Barrick Gold.  The South Dakota Science and Technology Authority was created to oversee the conversion to a laboratory.   The conversion into an underground laboratory had the full support and involvement of the National Science Foundation.  However, as scientists looked for other sites to conduct experiments, support for Homestake quickly dwindled and the researchers began to promote other sites to avoid the disruptive involvement of corporations such as Barrick Gold.  In response, the NSF invited proposals for other sites as the place to build a national underground laboratory.  It would review all sites, designate the best choices, and eventually select the one site for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL).

Eventually, the NSF received eight nominations for the DUSEL site.  Homestake was then a contender with seven other places.  The selection committee narrowed down its list to two finalists in the selection process:  Homestake mine in Lead, South Dakota, and Henderson mine near Empire, Colorado.  The Henderson site is a working molybdenum mine.

The NSF chose the Homestake site for its final selection.  The  features of the mine that attracted the interest and support of the scientific community originally won out in the end.  But after the NSF had sponsored the proposal for the mine conversion and designated Homestake as the best site, it suddenly, in 2010, divorced itself from the project and withdrew funding for its further development.  In the meantime, the project was partially saved by the influx of $70 million from T. Denny Sanford, for whom the lab is now named.
"How can you have a functional lab run by a bunch of dummies who don't know the difference between a science laboratory and a fucking hamburger stand franchise?"

The sudden reversal of NSF support is demonstrated by the fact that in October 2009,  it authorized $29 million to continue development of the laboratory.  In December 2010, it withdrew from its role as the sponsor and funding source for the lab.  The reasons for this sudden reversal were never openly explained.  The NSF made only  two statements hinting at the reason for its decision.  It said that its function was not to support projects in infrastructure but to sponsor scientific experiments.  It also indicated it was not satisfied with the management arrangement for the lab.  

Members of the scientific community did not know the precise reasons for the NSF withdrawal, but they knew the reasons so many scientists were wary, skeptical, and discontented with the direction the lab project was taking.  They understood how the discontent influenced the board of the NSF.  It boiled down to the inherent conflict between science and business. 

The history of directors of the lab and the science authority, which oversees the lab correlates with the NSF relationship.  It begins with the formation of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority by legislation in 2004.  The involvement and role of the science authority is confusing and messy.  When the NSF ended its sponsorship of the laboratory with the comment that it was dissatisfied with the management of the lab,  some accounts in professional journals were led to believe that it involved a dispute between the Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, which also was involved in funding.  But. scientists who were acquainted with the project said the situation was created by the way matter was handled politically by the governor's office.  

Law gives the governor the responsibility to appoint the members of the Science Authority.  When Gov. Mike Rounds did so, he appointed all business people and not one scientist.  His initial appointments were:  

  • David "Dave" Snyder, Lead, a businessman involved in hog operations.
  • Tom Adam, a Pierre attorney with state board experience. 
  • David Bozied, a Sioux Falls businessman with experience on state boards, including the former State Cement Plant commission and the state economic development commission.
  • Pat LeBrun, Rapid City financial adviser and longtime member of the South Dakota Board of Regents, which oversees the state's six public universities.
  • Casey Peterson, longtime Rapid City accountant and owner of Casey Peterson & Associates  
The Science Authority is run by an executive director.  Holding that position includes:

  • Richard Gowen, former president of the School of Mines and Technology, who retired for health reasons Nov. 15, 2004.
  • Dave Snyder from SDSTA board, Nov. 15, 2004 to June 30, 2008.
  • Ron Wheeler, a businessman in Watertown and Huron, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, and Commissioner of Economic Development, July 2008 to July 2013.
  • Mike Headley, a deputy director at SDSTA who previously developed technology at the EROS data center and for the Air Force, July 1.2013 to the present.  

In 2007 when the NSF designated Homestake to be the site of the national laboratory, Dr. Jose Alonso, a physicist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was appointed director by the Science Authority.  On October 15, 2009, two years later, he resigned.  That was the same day that the NSF announced its $29 million grant to the lab.  Between the time that he resigned and July 1, 2013, when Mike Headley was appointed executive director, the lab was run by Ron Wheeler, the executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.  It was during the year following Dr Alonso's resignation that the NSF changed from an aggressively enthusiastic sponsor of the lab to a disgruntled divorcee.  

It was very difficult to get any kind of official information on what was going on between the NSF, the Sanford Lab, and those who were running it.   University faculty in South Dakota were clueless,  largely because scientists from the state's higher education system were not included as advisors or participants in the efforts to develop the lab. A professor or two from South Dakota institutions had their names mentioned, but did not have any role in the development proceedings. There was quite a different situation between science faculty and lab proponents in Colorado who worked on the Henderson proposal.  At the time that the competition for national lab designation was between the Homestake mine in South Dakota and the Henderson mine in Colorado, members of the Colorado higher education community were vocal about why they thought the designation of the Homestake mine would be a disaster for scientific research.  At this time, I was involved in some work in Colorado and had discussions with Colorado professors.  South Dakotans have little understanding of why some people hold such disdain for their state.  One Colorado professor who had been associated with the national underground laboratory proposal and was an early proponent for Homestake, stated the attitude bluntly:  "How can you have a functional lab run by a bunch of dummies who don't know the difference between a science laboratory and a fucking hamburger stand franchise?"

The statement came in the context of Gov. Mike Rounds' efforts to generate funds and interest in the Homestake conversion as an economic development project.  As the directorship of the lab passed from nuclear physicist Alonso to economic development executive Wheeler, scientists reacted with consternation.   However, it was the dismayed scientists who were the source of any information about what was actually going on with the management of the lab.  The press published news releases from the Science Authority and other agencies written to create the impression that everyone involved worked hard to get the  lab up and running and that they played well together.   But no one in the South Dakota press, except for a few bloggers, ask the question of what qualifications people on the Science Authority had for overseeing a complicated small-particle lab or what kind of decisions they were making about it.  The message coming from the scientific community is that the management of the lab was a mess mired down in crony GOP politics and irrelevant economic development platitudes.  That is why the replacement of a highly respected physicist, Dr. Jose Alonso, as lab director with economic development specialist Ron Wheeler sent the scientific community reeling.

The only clue reported by the press came from a Rapid City Journal interview with Dave Snyder when he passed the executive directorship of the Science Authority to Ron Wheeler.  About his resignation, he said, "It's like a private business, there's time to sell."  But he also alluded to his own qualifications, when he said he was put in the role of executive "by default" and his position was only to be for six months.  He commented, "I'm increasingly out of my comfort zone.  It's not something for someone with an agricultural background to lead."

The scientific potential of the Sanford Lab has prevailed, most probably, through the efforts of Dr. Kevin Lesko, a senior physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Lesko was the chief investigator for the underground laboratory project and has been an advocate for the old Homestake mine since it was first suggested for conversion to a laboratory.  Through all the confusing turmoil among the lab's overseers, Lesko kept the scientific potential and advantages of the site before the science community.  When Barrick Gold shut off the water pumps in 2003, physicist Wick Haxton, who was leading the study of the DUSEL proposal, resigned to work on a competing proposal for his home state of Washington.  Many other scientists who felt the strong need for a deep underground lab to carry forward the research on neutrinos and other matter followed suite. Lesko saw the unique advantages of Homestake and continued to advocate for the site despite the obstacles that came up.
Dr. Ani Aprahamian, Notre Dame

Science got its foot in the door in 2009 when Gov. Mike Rounds went out of state and departed from business people in choosing a scientist for a member of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.  He chose Dr. Ani Aprahamian of Notre Dame  who was acquainted with the Sanford Laboratory and had visited it when she was the program director for Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Astrophysics at the National Science Foundation.  Her term of office expires in December of this year.  

Dr. Robert Wilson, Colorado State

Another scientist was appointed to the Science Authority board this month  by Gov. Daugaard.  He is Dr. Robert Wilson of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.   He succeeds Pierre attorney Tom Adams on the authority.  During the time that the Henderson Mine in Colorado was in  contention for underground laboratory site,  Dr. Wilson was the project manager and deputy spokesperson for the project.  

Prior to Dr. Aprahamian's appointment the Science and Technology Authority had  no one on the board outside of business or business-related persons.  For a few months, at least, the authority will have two prominent scientists in physics research and experiment design as members of the board.  

The Authority's first executive director, Richard Gowen, held a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  As noted previously, the next two persons to hold that position were businessmen.   The current director, Mike Headley, has a B.S. in computer science and an M.S. in business administration.  

Over the years since the DUSEL was proposed for the Homestake mine and it became the Sanford Underground Research Facility,  there has been a struggle, bitter at times, between those political appointees who saw it as an economic development project and those who saw its potential for science.  Science is the business of generating, verifying, and refining knowledge.  At one time business was regarded as supplying needs to  the human community, of which it tried to be a member, and receiving compensation for doing so.  American  capitalism has focused on the compensation part, and exploiting the human community in any means possible to obtain profits is the sole objective.  When companies close or move their operations, throwing masses of people out of work, the explanation is always that it's a business decision.  Sometimes companies have to close or move, and survival requires firing employees.  But those business never consider the damage done to communities and workers.  

The business of creating and acting as stewards of knowledge, whether science or the humanities or the arts, cannot operate on the principle that business does.  Knowledge is created to sustain the human community and provide for its progress, not to exploit humanity to satisfy the greed of a few.  

Gov. Rounds initial appointments to the Science and Technology Authority were all people steeped in the conventions of business.  His devotion to economic development characterized his decisions and actions on the Homestake conversion, just as they did with the EB-5 scandal,  which did not have the counterparts of  those scientists who worked with such diligence and integrity to realize the Sanford Lab as benefit to science and the human community.  

The Science and Technology Authority has taken the options of including two nuclear scientists who actually know and practice the processes the lab is created to carry out.  That is encouraging.  But there are still those in the political realm who conceive of it as just another hamburger stand that could make them some money.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States