Chu Calls NSF's Decision to Abandon DUSEL 'Disappointing'

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says that he's "very disappointed" with the National Science Foundation (NSF) for pulling out of a planned $875-million underground science lab in South Dakota.

In his most extensive public comments since NSF's oversight body decided in December to walk away from the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) project, Chu told a congressional spending panel yesterday that the decision was especially hard to fathom "since [NSF] started it."

NSF officials "had to make their own decision," Chu said in comments to reporters after the hearing. "But historically, they were the ones who said an underground lab would be a good thing and asked us if we'd like to come along. And we said, 'Sure, there are lots of interesting things that one could do there.' So it's always disappointing when someone says come join me and then, several years later, says that they aren't doing it anymore, or they may not be doing it."

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) asked about DUSEL during a hearing by a Senate spending panel on DOE's 2012 budget request. Johnson has promoted the idea of converting Homestake, a former gold mine in his home state, into a multipurpose laboratory—as NSF officials had proposed as early as 2001—and asked Chu whether DOE planned to keep moving forward on the project. DOE has requested $15 million in its 2012 budget to keep the mine dry, while NSF's 2012 request says explicitly that the agency has "terminated" the project and redistributed $36 million to other activities within its physics program.

Chu told Johnson he is awaiting a report from William Brinkman, head of the department's Office of Science, on what DOE plans to do next, but admitted that the next iteration of DUSEL is likely to be much less ambitious. "We hope to get funds to continue pumping out the water," Chu said, adding that he also hoped to "keep together the dedicated scientific team" that's been working on the project. But Chu said that losing "the support of what was supposed to be a 50/50 partner" is likely to mean going forward "in a reduced capacity."

Chu said that DUSEL is a key element in DOE's strategy to maintain a strong high-energy physics program at its Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois after the Tevatron accelerator is shuttered this fall. "We have every intention of continuing to invest in Fermilab," Chu says, "and one of the experiments is to install a detector in Homestake" for the long baseline neutrino experiment. "That is why we're especially disappointed in the events of the past year regarding DUSEL."

Chu said he feels "personally" the anguish of the DUSEL team, led by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the DOE lab that Chu directed before coming to DOE in January 2009. "Not that I'm going to play favorites," he noted. And he apologized to Johnson for not being able to give him a more upbeat report. "I'm sorry, it's disappointing, but that's the best I can do."

Posted in Policy, Funding Budget 2012