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As NSF Moves Closer to Historic Budget Increases, South Dakota Site Chosen for Underground National Lab

July 18, 2007

The deepest mine in the U.S. has been selected by the National Science Foundation as site of its Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Also known as the “Homestake” in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the site contains 375 miles of tunnels, some extending more than 8,000 feet into the earth.

Why build a national laboratory with some components more than a mile below the earth’s surface? Because the unique environment deep under the earth allows for some very interesting experiments to occur. In the field of particle physics for example, thousands of feet of rock can be used to shield equipment from the cosmic rays that make particle detection difficult. In microbiology, tiny organisms living without sunlight miles below the surface with the ability to degrade waste and produce energy can be observed and studied. And in the earth sciences, geophysical characteristics of the earth’s crust including thermal properties and tectonic stresses can be further explored.

The winning proposal was presented by a team consisting of the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA). The SDSTA was created by the South Dakota state legislature in 2004, specifically to convert the mine into a center for science, research, and education.

The state of South Dakota allocated $35 million toward the effort of transforming the site. Additionally, the philanthropist T. Denny Sanford pledged $70 million for the laboratory if the project were to choose Homestake. In recognition of the gift, the laboratory will be named the Sanford Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, or SUSEL. Now that the site is selected, NSF will provide $5 million per year over the next three years to prepare detailed technical designs for the laboratory. The entire project is estimated to cost $500 million, but in order for the project to move forward, it must be approved by the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the president and Congress and must successfully compete against future NSF research projects.

The decision to move forward with the underground national lab comes at a time when NSF may see its budget dramatically increase in the upcoming years, providing additional opportunities for states and regions that partner with NSF. Within the Administration’s federal budget proposal released in the beginning of this year, NSF’s funding for fiscal year 2008 was $6.43 billion, an increase of 8.7 percent from the previous fiscal year.

In recent weeks, FY 2008 appropriation bills began making their way through Congress. Both House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill would increase NSF’s budget by at least 10 percent. The Association of American Universities reports, however, that President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, because the overall Commerce-Justice-Science appropriation is 5 percent higher than the Administration’s FY08 request. 

NSF’s website for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which contains technical information and links to the winning site, is http://www.dusel.org/.