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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The DUSEL is dead. Long live the neutrino.

The Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) project at the Homestake Goldmine has been canceled.  Its demise has not been announced officially.  A much smaller part of its life work will be carried on by an offspring, one that may be part of the cause of its end, the Sanford Underground Laboratory. 

Officials and the media have not acknowledged that the project  so widely and extravagantly touted to turn the Homestake Goldmine into a major national scientific research center--proclaimed as Gov. Mike Rounds' signal achievement-- has come to an end.   The National Science Foundation has indicated that the conversion of the mine into a laboratory is beyond the scope of its mission and has eliminated it from any of its funding priorities.  However, the NSF has other problems with the Homestake conversion which are alluded to, but not specified, in a number of reports from committees which have been involved in working on the project.  State officials have been loathe to admit the failure of the project.  Under the Sanford Underground Research Facility, development of the lab will be limited to one facility at the 4,850-foot level with only a few experiments scheduled to be conducted there.

The death blow, which became fatal during intervening months,  was delivered last December, when the National Science Board, which sets the policy and programs for the National Science Foundation, announced that it would not provide a $23 million bridge grant which was to carry forward the work on design and development of the Homestake Goldmine into a national underground laboratory.

The National Science Board has not been clear or forthcoming about its decision to end its support of the DUSEL.  That fact is puzzling to everyone involved in the project because its parent organization, the National Science Foundation, took a leadership role in declaring the Homestake site as the location for a national DUSEL and was integrally involved in the planning and development.  The NSF had solicited competitive nominations for the location of the DUSEL and awarded that designation to the Homestake Mine. 

The NSF was the main sponsoring organization of the DUSEL project with the Department of Energy,  The South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of Southern California, and the Sanford Lab as cooperating partners.  The NSF was the major source of development funds and support.  Now the Department of Energy is the main financial sponsor with the South Dakota Authority as the main overseer.  The plan as announced with the appointment of a director of the lab last week is limited to the Sanford Lab at the 4,850 level. The SDSTA had been scrambling for funds to pump water out of the mine at its lower levels.  The water filled the mine shaft when Barrick Gold, which corporation owned the mine, shut off the water pumps when it got into a dispute with the state over liabilities from the mining operation it had conducted.  In the announcement of recent developments, no mention has been made of plans concerning what water level will be maintained in the mine shaft. 

When the National Science Board announced its decision to withdraw funding for further development, its officers made some comments about being unhappy with the management arrangement, indicating that it thought the DUSEL had become an infrastructure project while the NSF's  mission is to sponsor scientific experiments.  The Board seemed to have some resentment about the role of the Department of Energy, which now is the agency that determines what future the lab has as a vehicle for a scientific advancement. 

The closest to an official announcement was a story in mid-July by Wendy Pitlick of the Black Hills Pioneer, who has supplied the most consistent and intensive news coverage of the developments at the Homestake Goldmine.  Her story bore the headline "Dusel no more."

The media made a more specific announcement on the change in plans for converting the Homestake Mine with the announcement last week of a new director for the Sanford Underground Research Facility (now bearing the acronym SURF):

 The SDSTA, which is reopening Homestake as the Sanford Underground Laboratory, will work with the Department of Energy, or DOE, to further develop the lab. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a DOE facility, will work directly with the SDSTA, which also continues to work with the University of California at Berkeley and with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.

The degree to which the scientific community anticipated the development of the DUSEL is expressed by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory website which proclaims:  "Someday DUSEL will be the deepest, biggest underground laboratory in the world."

That statement, still on the website as of today, indicates the unexpected and abrupt decision by the National Science Foundation not to pursue the DUSEL any further at this time.  The Lawrence Berkeley site also stresses the important role the lab could have for neutrino research"Neutrino science is the keystone of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), a multidisciplinary lab proposed for the former Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota, where thousands of feet of rock will shield experiments from cosmic rays and background radiation."

The original DUSEL plans placed major underground facilities  at the 800 foot level, the 4850 foot level, and the 7400 foot level, with provisions to place additional small experiments at various other levels. Plans also included a large surface campus.  The plan was to accommodate experiments in particle physics, biological sciences, geological sciences, and engineering.  Now it will host only  experiments in dark matter, double beta decay, and long baseline neutrino research. However, plans include  room to grow in the future, developing more science at the facility if funds are available.

The National Science Foundation has not supplied specific or detailed reasons for its withdrawal from the project.  The only near-definitive explanation is supplied by an articled in Science Magazine which summarizes the considerations that confronted the Foundation in making a decision:

Particle physicists want to convert the Homestake mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota into the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), the largest underground lab in the world. In it they would seek the elusive "dark matter" whose gravity binds the galaxies, a type of radioactivity that would blur the line between matter and antimatter, and protons falling apart as predicted by some particle theories. Advocates say the $875 million project is too good an opportunity to pass up. But DUSEL is not a typical project for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which historically builds scientific instruments such as telescopes. Instead, DUSEL is mostly an infrastructure project to provide lab space for a host of experiments in a variety of disciplines. Moreover, the biggest experiment in it would be a gargantuan particle detector funded primarily by the Department of Energy (DOE), not NSF. 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?

While the decision was in process, a sub-committee of the National Science Foundation charged with assessing the project for its importance to the geological sciences (the Advisory Committee on Geosciences)  was informed of the National Science Board decision when it gathered to meet.  Its report states:  "On Feb. 16, the first day of the subcommittee's meeting, NSF personnel informed the subcommittee of significant findings by the National Science Board's Committee on Programs and Plans."  Those "significant findings" are not explicitly mentioned, however.   

The advisory committee noted the NSF withdrawal of funds at the outset of its report and suggests some of the reasons for the withdrawal as well as the fact that the NSF might put its funds for particle research into some other enterprise:

"Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL): NSF eliminates funding for DUSEL, which had been pursued in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science. This termination is based on National Science Board reviews that concluded the cost and scope of DUSEL were inconsistent with the agency?s role in advancing fundamental research and education across many fields and disciplines. NSF will continue to solicit proposals for future particle physics research."

The report contains other suggestions of problems that the NSF had with the DUSEL at Homestake:
  • The panel identified some experimental facilities that require significantly more
    analysis and development of safety protocols.
  •   In general, a number of physics experiments at DUSEL may collect data that have geological implications but are not of interest in particle physics. 
  • ...the scientific opportunities should be evaluated in the context that future changes in funding or redistribution of facilities and research costs between NSF and DOE may correct the problems identified by the National Science Board. Evaluations are made in this report, assuming that the DUSEL facility re-emerges as a scientific priority.
Prior to the total withdrawal of the NSF from the DUSEL project, the Foundation and the Department of Energy had commissioned an evaluation of the project from the National Research Council, which is an independent advisory organization of the country's leading scientists.  In the minutes for the NSF's Committee on Planning and Programs (CPP) from a meeting late last spring, it was noted that Dr. Andy Lankford, who chaired the NRC committee writing the report on the DUSEL, briefed the NSF committee on NRC findings.  The NRC has published a preliminary version of its report which seems to strongly support the development of the DUSEL.  Among its conclusions are:

  • In response to this charge, the committee concludes that three of the proposed physics experiments (1) a direct detection dark matter experiment on a scale of one to tens of tons, (2) a long-baseline neutrino oscillation experiment, and (3) a ton-scale, neutrinoless double-beta decay experiment are of paramount and comparable scientific importance.
  • Among the proposed experiments are regulated studies of the influence of fracture systems on rock response to applied loads and of the interdependence of the thermo-hydro-mechanical-chemical-biologic aspects of subsurface systems, and efforts to make rock more "transparent" by developing imaging techniques that would allow the exploration of subsurface material at a distance despite its visible opaqueness. Enabling the geoscience and subsurface engineering fields to conduct such studies would be a huge step forward for these fields.
The conclusion of the NRC report suggests that, as with any scientific investigation in progress, some modifications and design changes are to be expected, but that the overall plan for the DUSEL would be a huge contribution to science and American's place in leading scientific research:

Conclusion: Development of an underground research facility in the United States would supplement and complement underground laboratories around the world. A U.S. facility could build upon the unique position of the United States that would allow it to develop a long-baseline neutrino experiment using intense beams from Fermilab. It could accommodate one of the large direct detection dark matter experiments and one of the large neutrinoless double-beta decay experiments that are needed by the international effort to resolve these critical scientific issues, while sharing infrastructure among these three experiments that are of comparable import. It could also host and share infrastructure with other underground physics experiments, such as an accelerator to study nuclear astrophysics, and with underground experiments in other fields. An underground research facility would benefit the U.S. research communities, and would guarantee the United States a leadership role in the expanding global field of underground science.
Despite the drastic down-scaling of the DUSEL into the Sanford Underground Surface Facility, the appointment of Michael Headley as director of the lab anticipates a possible re-emergence of the old goldmine as a major scientific resource for the U.S.  Headley was the project director for the DUSEL before NSF abandoned the project.  He has a long relationship in dealing with the Department of Energy, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and the Fermilab in Illinois.  Headley was with the EROS Data Center north of Sioux Falls for a number of years and has successful experience in dealing with the scientific community.

Many people in the scientific community who were early supporters of the DUSEL project at Homestake have said that the issues raised by Barrick Gold's flooding of the mine and the state's attempt to promote the project as an economic development scheme were seen by scientists as evidence that the science was not given serious consideration and precedence.  Some are convinced that this lies behind the NSF abandonment of the project.  

The Sanford Underground Laboratory, if it demonstrates scientific credibility and success, could be used to develop further experiments along the scale proposed in the DUSEL plans.  The National Research Council compared the Homestake DUSEL project to other facilities throughout the world.  There are many other facilities in the U.S. and throughout the world, including China, who are ready to host some of the experiments the DUSEL was designed to accommodate.  The competition will be tough.

Here is a schematic of the current plan for the Sanford Underground Laboratory at the 4,850-foot level as scaled down from the DUSEL proposal that the National Science Foundation no longer supports. 

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