The future of the Sanford Underground Lab at Homestake in Lead is suddenly in question after a federal board declined to approve the millions of dollars needed to keep the project going past this spring.
That multimillion dollar facility in the former Homestake Mine has been on a path to become a more elaborate Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory under the joint supervision of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.
That is, until last week, when the NSF's oversight board balked at spending $29 million in funding to operate the lab after current funding expires in May.
Now the lab's funding is uncertain, though Gov. Mike Rounds and people involved in its operation say they are optimistic a solution can be found.
"It's a setback, but we're still really enthusiastic about the project and think we have some other things we can run down," said Graham Garner, vice president for university advancement at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, which helps operate the laboratory.
The complex costs around $1 million per month for basic operations, including the pumping system that keeps the lower reaches of the mine from filling with water. Its operations and support staff numbers around 90, plus dozens more scientists working on research projects tied to the underground laboratory itself.
Those jobs could be at stake if new funding isn't found soon.
Well before the current funding starts to run out next spring, Rounds said the state and the universities operating the laboratory would have to decide whether to "go into preservation mode" and keep the mine operating as long as possible.
That could mean letting the team of engineers currently designing the laboratory walk away, making it more difficult to bring staff on if funding materializes in the first place.
Many of the staff are working on design and planning for the $300 million DUSEL, to be constructed 7,400 feet underground. It hasn't received final approval, though the interim Sanford Underground Lab is operational 4,850 feet below the surface.
At the core of the sudden funding crisis are doubts by the National Science Board about whether the NSF is really equipped to help run a major national laboratory as it has been planning.
Rounds said "everyone" was taken by surprise by this decision last week.
"This comes as a complete surprise to the officials at the NSF who have been working on this for months or in some case years," he said.
But other funding options exist. The National Science Board, the presidentially appointed oversight board for the National Science Foundation, could decide to approve the $29 million in funding after all.
Alternately, the Department of Energy, previously scheduled to partner with the science foundation on the lab, could pick up a larger role in funding and operating the lab. The Energy Department has much more experience operating large national laboratories than does the National Science Foundation - and hopes to use the underground laboratory to conduct experiments in conjunction with its Fermilab facility in Illinois.
Proponents of the Sanford Lab, including politicians in South Dakota and California - whose University of California, Berkeley, is helping to operate the lab - have been talking with the National Science Board and White House officials to try to secure funding.
Scientists on the project are also arguing against a delay.
"Beyond the hundreds of jobs that are hanging in the balance, the ... project represents the sort of investment in basic science that has throughout our history played a key role in maintaining America's competitiveness, economic growth and scientific leadership," said Dan Mogulof, executive director of the Berkeley office of public affairs. "For that reason the stakes are high for scientists and society as a whole."
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or email@example.com