NSF Balks at Continuing Design Work for Underground Science Lab

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

The oversight board for the National Science Foundation (NSF) has rejected a request for additional funding to design an $875 million underground laboratory in South Dakota. Its reasons suggest that the Department of Energy (DOE), NSF's partner in the proposed Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), may have to go it alone.

"We don't like the stewardship model, and we are concerned with the cost and scope of the project," explained Mark Abbott, chair of the Committee on Programs and Plans for the National Science Board, about the proposed partnership. Last week, the committee rejected a recommendation from the NSF director to provide a "bridge" award that would allow the project team to finish a preliminary design for DUSEL and address ongoing safety concerns. In September 2009, the board approved $29 million for such activities, but the cost to complete the work has since doubled. The new request was for $19 million in 2011, Abbott said, with the expectation that NSF would provide an additional $10 million in the spring.

Scientists hope that DUSEL will allow them to explore a host of challenging questions about the origins of matter. One key experiment would be to capture neutrinos beamed from Fermilab, a DOE particle physics lab in Illinois. Another would search for the elusive dark matter that makes up 85% of the universe. A third would search for a type of radioactivity that would blur the distinction between matter and antimatter. Project officials are expecting NSF to contribute $123 million to the Long-Baseline Neutrino Detector, which could cost as much as $940 million. DOE and NSF would also collaborate on the cost of other experiments and additional infrastructure, including excavation and surface buildings.

Although the idea of doing science in an abandoned gold mine was proposed nearly a decade ago, the project has evolved as scientists refined their plans. And the latest iteration is not something that the science board, a presidentially appointed body of 24 prominent scientists, educators, and administrators, is ready to embrace. "At its heart, DUSEL is a physics experiment," says Abbott. "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."

Abbott says the original design "was not well defined, and there were a lot of concerns expressed." As the proposals were fleshed out, he says, it became clear that "it wasn't matching what we see for NSF." As a result, he says, "the current plan for the two agencies to share responsibility is unacceptable."

Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Corvallis, didn't rule out a role for NSF in supporting DUSEL. "There are lots of ways for NSF to meet its desire for interagency partnerships," he said. But the board was acutely aware of the fierce competition for limited resources, he added. "NSF dollars are very precious and need to be spent in the most scientifically effective way possible," he noted. "These are hard decisions because there is so much good science out there to support."

Posted in Funding, Physics