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Monday, December 13, 2010

Dorking at the DUSEL?

It seems that everyone connected with the development of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake in Lead, was blind-sided by a decision to withdraw some funding that had seemed certain.  The National Science Board, which oversees the work of the National Science Foundation, decided not to supply $29 million in a grant that would have funded operation and development of the laboratory from May 2011 until the National Science Foundation is scheduled to make a decision about whether it will give full approval and authorization for the operation of the DUSEL.

The Board's rejection of the funding has caused furious activity in the Governor's office to seek some resolution.  According to the Black Hills Pioneer, Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune wrote a letter to President Obama's  adviser on interagency affairs, Valerie Jarett, protesting the action and asking for a meeting with Jarrett and the principles involved in the laboratory project.  The reason for contacting the President's office is because the Board members are appointed by the President.  The letter reads:

NSF has informed the project that despite the agreements made, the National Science Board has declined any additional funding -- putting all of the existing and future jobs in jeopardy. This is the second time the project has been put at risk based on NSB delays and decisions. The process appears broken with critical milestones missed inside the federal government review process -- hindering the state and the project's ability to succeed as a partner. The NSB decision further undermines our confidence in the ability of the administration and especially NSF to manage large interagency facilities despite unprecedented cooperation among DOE and NSF to date.

It requests that Jarett, the Department of Energy, the NSF, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Gov. Mike Rounds be included in the meeting.

Confusion over the $29 million comes from what the lab proponents have said was a commitment made by the NSF.  Gov. Rounds had asked the South Dakota legislature to appropriate $5 million to continue work on the  lab until May 2011.  After voting the appropriation down twice, the legislature acceded when a meeting with the National Science Foundation produced what the state regarded as a commitment to provide development and operating funds in May.  The chair of the oversight board, Ray Bowen, however, has stated that the NSF was not authorized to make such a commitment.  It cannot authorize spending over $12.5 million, and Bowen said that no information was provided the Board for its Dec. 2 meeting that indicated such a commitment had been made.  He further remarked that the NSF was generally meticulous about its handling of such funding requests.

The exact role of the National Science Foundation is confusing.  When a site for the DUSEL was being proposed, the NSF was the agency in authority to make a selection and facilitate development.  Through an elimination process, the final sites considered by the NSF were the Homestake Mine and the Henderson Mine, in Empire, Colo.  It seemed clear that the NSF had the power and authority to pick  the site for the DUSEL and to oversee its development.  The competition between Colorado and South Dakota was intense.  From the standpoint of human talent and cultural and political support, Colorado had an advantage over South Dakota.  Professors from five state universities,  all of which are a few hours drive from the Henderson Mine, organized a support and advocacy group.  Personnel who would be employed in research at the DUSEL clearly preferred the site near Denver for cultural, social, and professional reasons.   The Denver area provided more activities and education for families.

South Dakota offered scant academic interest and support for the laboratory, and the social, cultural, and political climate of the Black Hills was regarded by many scientists as a serious drawback.  When negotiations over the mine stalled and Barrick Gold, the owner, shut off the water pumps and and let the shafts fill with water, many scientists withdrew their support and looked for alternatives.  That action seemed to forecast to many researchers the attitude and obstacles that would stand in the way of the mine ever becoming a first-class research facility.  

The mine itself was the deciding factor in making Homestake the top choice for a DUSEL.  Its depth, its geological features, and its configuration could not be matched or duplicated for deep, underground research. Even the scientists who had given up on it and were looking for different places to do their research and experiments admitted that it had physical and scientific advantages that would be extremely difficult to match.  

The criticisms of the National Science Board in explaining the rejection of the  funding are not clear and specific, but they fall into two major contentions:  they would like to see the Department of Energy, a partner in the enterprise, and other agencies,provide more of the funding; and they object to the form that the joint-effort has taken among those involved in the lab.  Chair of the NSB committee on programs and plans, Mark Abbott, said “The roles and risks, responsibilities and resources -- we didn't have the right mix between the NSF, DOE and its other partners,” he said. “We really have to look at the shared responsibilities and the risk during all phases of the project. We just found the model being pursued was unacceptable.”  He said further, "We don't like the stewardship model, and we are concerned with the cost and scope of the project." 

The Department of Energy is the main federal agency with whom the NSF partners.  The NSB board members do not mention the other agencies and their roles, but those involved with the lab and their financial contributions are:
  • The National Science Foundation, $80 million
  • The Department of Energy, $100 million
  • The State of South Dakota,$120 million
  • T. Denny Sanford donation, $70 million  [The Sanford donation is restricted to $35 million to prepare the mine at the 4,850-foot level, $15 million to re-open the mine at the 8,000-foot level, and $20 million to establish an education and outreach center at the mine.]

   If the state and Sanford participation are what the Board finds unacceptable, the Board has not said.  The meeting of the Committee on Programs and Plans was closed at its Dec. 2 session at which the DUSEL was discussed, and apparently the committee members will not specify what their objections are.  Abbott's comments sound like an interagency problem.  Abbott said the original plan was not well defined, and "As the proposals were fleshed out, it wasn't matching what we see for NSF...The current plan for the two agencies to share responsibility is unacceptable."  For the decision to not fund the DUSEL to be reversed, he said the NSF directors would have to come to the Board with a new plan. `He said, "The project needs to reflect the mission of NSF. We're a science agency, not a mission agency, or a facilities agency, or a big infrastructure agency. We didn't think that the model was right for NSF." 

Early in the struggles to turn the goldmine into a lab, the state sold the proposition on the basis of it being an economic development enterprise.  Members of the scientific and academic communities warned that scientific research purposes and economic development are often in  conflict.  Science is trying to examine unknown aspects of the universe, and economic development is looking for discoveries and inventions that can make money.  If the research becomes directed toward the purpose of finding new products, the scientific objectives will take a back seat.  Abbott's comments sound as if the NSB is not finding the scientific purpose in the lab partnership that the NSF was created to advance.

At this time, a meeting requested by Senators Johnson and Thune has not been scheduled, but the NSB holds out little opportunity for reversing its decision, but seems open to looking at a revised plan for the partnership and development of the lab.  

Members of the NSB Programs and Plans Committee are listed below, with short biographies linked to their names. 


Dr. Mark R. Abbott


Dr. José-Marie Griffiths   
Dr. Douglas D. Randall 
Mr. Arthur K. Reilly 
Dr. Diane L. Souvaine
Dr. Thomas N. Taylor 
Dr. Richard F. Thompson


Dr. Barry C. Barish
Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier
Dr. Louis J. Lanzerotti   

Dr. Alan I. Leshner 

Bob Mercer,  Madville Times, and Mt. Blogmore have carried items on this development. 

Robert Sanders, spokesman for the University of California-Berkeley, the sponsoring agent for the DUSEL proposal, said so far the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the state of South Dakota have collectively contributed $300 million to the project and its proposed science experiments. The NSF has given $80 million, the DOE has contributed $100 million (mostly for DUSEL science proposals), and South Dakota has given $120 million. That accounting does not include a donation of $70 million from Sioux Falls philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, which must be spent in stages. Specifically, $35 million of that money is for re-entering and preparing the former gold mine for science at the 4,850-foot level, $15 million is to re-open the mine to the 8,000-foot level, and $20 million is committed for an education and outreach facility at the lab.

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

Thank you, David; great insight.

I was part of a group looking to purchase the Ross Compressor Building. Part of the inventory were three mammoth machines that provided the pneumatic needs for most of the Homestake.

Our research showed that they could maintain the pressure needed to keep water from filling the mine at the deepest levels. Those compressors, so meticulously maintained for seven decades, were sold for scrap.

My cries to the Rounds administration were ignored.

The craziest part of this whole story is that the Homestake represents 8000 feet closer to the geothermal potential to power most of the region.

South Dakota is a joke. I am ecstatic to be an ex-pat.

Flee, Doc.

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