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House Science Committee Roundtable Discusses Proposed Deep Underground Facility

Richard M. Jones
Number 121 - September 29, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Yesterday two members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a roundtable event to hear from twelve physicists about the feasibility of a proposed Department of Energy underground high energy physics facility.  Among those participating in this roundtable at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory was American Physical Society Vice President Michael Turner.

The roundtable was chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL).  It comes as the Department of Energy is examining its options following a decision last year by the National Science Board (NSB) terminating the participation of the National Science Foundation in the development of a proposed deep underground science facility at the site of the former Homestake Mine in South Dakota.   

Senate appropriators agreed with the NSB decision, remarking in their FY 2012 report regarding the National Science Foundation that “The Committee notes the National Science Board’s decision to end NSF involvement in DUSEL and appreciates transition funding provided in fiscal year 2011 to coordinate with the Department of Energy [DOE]. In light of the recent Board decision and National Research Council recommendations, the Committee expects NSF to provide a report within 60 days regarding efforts to collaborate with DOE on the use of a future deep underground science laboratory and any current or planned commitments by the Foundation.”  There was no comment regarding the facility in the House Appropriations Committee's report for the National Science Foundation.

House appropriators provided a very small increase in the Department of Energy’s FY 2012 budget for high energy physics.  Regarding the proposed laboratory, their committee report stated:

“The Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) has been an important component of the Department’s planning for the build-out of its neutrino and dark matter experimental capabilities. The decision by the National Science Foundation to discontinue funding for the underground laboratory has created additional uncertainty for program planning and delayed the Critical Decision 1 milestone for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment.

“As the Department weighs alternatives, the Committee cautions the Department against taking over the construction and long-term management of DUSEL. Adopting management of yet another laboratory site would add budgetary and management burdens to an already stressed program. However, the Committee supports the use of funding to maintain the viability of the DUSEL underground laboratory, including dewatering and maintaining security, in order to preserve it as an option while the Department weighs the alternatives. Further, the Department is directed to report to the Committee an assessment of alternatives to DUSEL and its recommendations for moving forward.”

The Senate version of the DOE appropriations bill included an almost two percent reduction in the budget for the high energy physics program.  In the report accompanying the bill, the appropriators explained:

“The Committee provides no construction funds for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment. The Committee is concerned that this project is not mature enough for construction because a location for this experiment in an underground laboratory has not yet been selected and the decision of the National Science Foundation to discontinue construction funding for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in South Dakota has created uncertainty about the future of the project. In addition, the Office of Science has not yet selected a technology, which affects where the experiment can be located and total cost.

“The Committee also recommends $15,000,000 as requested - $10,000,000 from the High Energy Physics program and $5,000,000 from the Nuclear Physics program - to support minimal, sustaining operations at the Homestake Mine in South Dakota. The Committee is aware of the National Science Foundation’s decision.  However, the Committee encourages the Office of Science to examine cost-effective options for using the mine to stage critical experiments related to neutrino and dark matter research.”

At yesterday’s roundtable, both Hultgren and Biggert spoke of their support for the facility, with Hultgren touching on a key point when he remarked “The challenge going forward is to find a way to do this within the reality of the current budget environment.”  Also speaking in support of the facility was Fermilab Director Pier Oddone who stated “While the immediate program at Fermilab is world class, it will not stay this way into the future without developing forefront facilities and inventing new technologies to probe the intensity frontier.  Without a national deep underground facility we will be condemned to carry on multiple generations of these experiments off shore and lose the benefits of having the world’s vanguard deep underground laboratory in South Dakota.” 

Kevin Lesko of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is the lead investigator on this project.  He told the roundtable “The proposed physics experiments address questions central to our understanding of the universe--what makes up the majority of matter in the universe, and understanding the most perplexing particle in the universe, the neutrino, whose unusual properties might hold the key to the most fundamental questions of science.”

Michael S. Turner, Rauner Distinguished Service Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago and Vice President of the American Physical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics) also addressed the roundtable.  His remarks follow:

“Representatives Biggert and Hultgren, thank you for inviting me to participate in this important discussion of the Deep Underground Science Lab, a facility that has major implications for the future of high-energy physics in the U.S. and for U.S. science leadership more broadly.

“First, some relevant background about me. From 2000 to 2003 I led the National Academy of Sciences study Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos which recommended a deep, underground science lab in the U.S. From 2003 to 2006 I served as the Assistant Director for Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation and initiated the NSF planning process for such a laboratory. Since 2006, I have been a member of the Board of Directors of Fermilab Research Alliance, which manages Fermilab for DOE.

“Today I speak on behalf of the American Physical Society and then as a scientist excited about the science that can only be addressed in an underground lab. The APS rarely endorses a specific science project, and it has not endorsed DUSEL; its foremost concern is the health of the U.S. physics enterprise.

“For more than 50 years high-energy physics has been a flagship of U.S. physics and U.S. science more broadly, producing stunning discoveries and garnering Nobel prizes. For this reason, U.S. leadership in physics is inextricably tied to the health of high-energy physics. With the shutdown of the Tevatron, the near-term future of Fermilab and U.S.-based high energy physics more generally is tied to the health of Fermilab's neutrino program and projects associated with the cosmic frontier. Absent significant advances in detector technology, such experimental efforts require an underground laboratory.

“Let me conclude with some personal remarks informed by my own view of science; the U.S. has led the way in underground science beginning with the pioneering work of Raymond Davis on solar neutrinos at Homestake (for which he won a Nobel Prize). Thirty years ago at a workshop held at Los Alamos National Lab and whose proceeding I hold here, the case for an underground lab was laid out. The world listened and has built underground labs in Japan, Italy and Canada. Today, the biggest science questions remain unanswered - the nature of the mysterious dark matter, the origin and longevity of atoms, and the properties of neutrinos - and the opportunity for the U.S. to lead remains if it builds an underground lab.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics