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Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Will South Dakotans just get the shaft with Homestake?

It's the science, stupid!

The Homestake Goldmine is clearly the best site for establishing the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. It has only two major detractions:

When the proposal was first made to convert the abandoned Homestake Goldmine into the DUSEL, it had the support of almost every scientist in the field of physics. They saw the advantages of Homestake as exactly those that are needed to do the experiments that answer the questions and provide the information needed to do for physics what genome research has done for biology.

The support of the scientists quickly faded as negotiations between Barrick Gold and the state began. Barrick wanted to be relieved of any environmental liabilities connected with the gold mining operation in exchange for turning the mine over to government agencies for development as a science laboratory. The corporation had no interest in science, and it was impossible to deal with. It threatened to turn off the pumps that keep the mine dry and accessible if the government agencies involved, which were both state and federal, did not submit to its demands. When government officials could not agree, Barrick turned off the pumps and flooded the mine.

Most scientists realized that no science could be accomplished as long as an outfit like Barrick was on the scene, and they determined that if the experiments and work needed to carry physics into an exciting new age were to be done, they would have to be done elsewhere. Many proposals for other sites for the DUSEL were formulated as scientists saw Homestake held hostage by Barrick. When the pumps were turned off and the mine filled with water, even the most persistent scientists gave up and turned their efforts to more positive developments. Even the lead scientist gave up his role and turned his attention to a site in Washington. Only a few, such as Kevin Lesko from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, clung to any hope that some solution could be found to Barrick.

However, the discouraging aspect for all the other scientists was not only Barrick's disregard for anything but the corporate zeal for greed and power and the water that its actions produced in the mine. The fact that politicians could conceive of the value of Homestake only as an economic development project is a huge barrier.

As NASA has shown, the money invested in scientific research and development pays dividends far beyond the original investment. But science is not a profit-making scheme. It is a process of creating, refining, and transmitting knowledge. And that knowledge may or may not yield benefits to mankind. High-technology science takes immense amounts of money. It takes immense intellects to set up and analyze experiments. Academic research produces knowledge by establishing what is true and what is not. Little of that knowledge has any applications that can make money.

The Homestake project has received a half-million dollars from the National Science Foundation for developing a plan to make it the DUSEL. It is one of two locations chosen by the National Science Foundation to advance such plans. The other is the Henderson Mine in Colorado.

Governor Rounds is requesting money from the state legislature to go ahead and build a laboratory in the mine--even if the NSF does not choose it to be the DUSEL. The Governor and his supporters, as quoted in the news accounts, just keep yammering about the economic advantages of such a laboratory. They contend that they can invite scientists to come there and do their experiments.

Big question: If the Henderson Mine is the DUSEL, what major experiments will come to Homestake? Where will scientists get the money and the staff support to set up work in Homestake? The Henderson site is 60 miles from Denver and is within commuting distance of four public research universities.

The emphasis on economic development is a good indication that science is not much of a consideration in the current Homestake scheme. The science community has already shown that it has little interest or hope for Homestake as long as Barrick Gold is involved or it is looked at as an economic development scheme. Just because a lab may be built in Homestake does not mean the scientists will come. They will go where they can do their work and have the environment and support for their work.

The physicists who would work at Homestake are interested in astro-physics, dark matter, neutrinos, proton decay and the like. Economic development is not part of their science.

Kevin Lesko's summary of what it will take to convert Homestake into a laboratory has this question:

Why physicists go underground? To get away from people & backgrounds.

Homestake's advantages are that it has the depth and size to house all experiments that require underground settings. Its competitor, Henderson, has twice been rejected as a site because it is too shallow. Homestake's features are what have kept it a prime candidate for DUSEL.

Scientists will choose to do their experiments where science is free to operate without interference and control by Barrick or state officials who can think only of economic benefits. The sad fact is that economic development, not science, is what will sell the laboratory to the legislature and the people of the state. And science and economic scheming do not mix.

It's the science, stupid.

Well, perhaps in an ideal world science and profiteering or commerce don't mix, but we are unfortuantely in the real world of South Dakota where politics shares more with nightmares than pleasant dreams of economic bliss.

If the only way to sell science to South Dakota politicians is to indicate it is an economic benefit, then let's sell science that way if we must. If the "red in fang and tooth" conservatives can't support knowledge in the abstract, that is a problem for all of us.

If we must exploit their greed to sell this, let us exploit their greed in the interests of knowldedge despite the process.

Historically, knowledge and science has blossomed in periods of prosperity rather than during famines and dark ages. The old "princes" understood the value of art and science. If today's "princes" only understand economic greed and profit, then they must be fed something they understand.

It is not string theory, it is "stringalong" theory.
The problem, Douglas, is that scientists will not bring their work to a place where they have to support the overhead of economic scheming. That is why they were so quick to abandon Homestake for other places. The job of the Homestake task force is to lure the scientists back--and that will never be done as long as the place is cluttered with schemes from the chamber of commerce.
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