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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nobel laureate says science investment critical to nation's economy, future

WENDY PITLICK Black Hills Pioneer
LEAD, S.D. — The United States is falling behind in science and technology, officials say, and the slip could threaten the country's global economic primacy — unless the nation steps up investment in basic science research and in projects like the proposed national underground lab in Lead, S.D.

"Science and engineering are the drivers of a modern economy," said Dr. Jerome Friedman, a retired Nobel-laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We will not be competitive in terms of our economy unless we are a leader in science."

A report by a special committee representing the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine says the United States has fallen far behind China and Europe in publications, patents, biomedical research and other key aspects of science and technology. The 2010 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited," prepared in response to a request by a bipartisan group of senators and members of Congress, recommended doubling the country's research budget in order to remain competitive and halt the downward slide.

"If the nation is to maintain (its) economic strength, science has to remain a priority," said Dr. Mike Lubell from the American Physical Society. He pointed to the proposed deep underground science and engineering laboratory, or DUSEL, planned at the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead as precisely the kind of project the country needs to maintain — and boost — its standing in the world.

The DUSEL "would certainly be consistent with the overall recommendations in the academy's report," said Lubell, whose American Physical Society is one of the country's largest physics membership organizations and the world's premier physics publisher.

Friedman, who is not affiliated with the DUSEL proposal but who is familiar with it, said building the underground laboratory would be a step in the right direction because discoveries hatched there could lead to greater technologies in the private sector, improving the health and well being of society.

He cited examples of modern technology that are directly attributable to basic science research such as: The Internet, which was developed as an avenue of communication for particle physicists; accelerators used in cancer therapy that were designed for particle physics; MRI machines that were developed as the result of scientists studying the properties of a nucleus; and the study of X-rays that yielded the development of CAT Scan technology.

"We would be very much poorer in terms of our ability to cure people, to feed people and do basic things if we didn't do basic science," he said.

With experiments in dark matter detection, neutrinos, carbon sequestration and many other ground-breaking topics already planned for the DUSEL, Friedman said the country could reclaim its position as a scientific leader.

But the road ahead will be "difficult," Friedman acknowledged. The project has faced repeated funding hurdles, and the current taste for austerity in Washington could portend future budget tussles. "I think (building the DUSEL) will depend upon our political leaders having some foresight into the importance of it and what it will take to keep the United States a super power in science as well as the military domain," he said.

One such political leader, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., recently demonstrated his support for investments in research and development. Holt, who was a physicist at Princeton University before launching his political career in 1999, called efforts to indiscriminately cut programs in education and innovation reckless. The longtime advocate and supporter of scientific research asked his colleagues to consider investing in research and development that would encourage high tech jobs and income.

"As the budget process moves forward, I will work to ensure that we invest in, encourage, and support the spirit of American innovation and entrepreneurship that has been the cornerstone of our national prosperity since our founding," Holt said as Congress worked to reconcile the federal budget for the remainder of the 2011 year.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said support for science in general, and specifically the DUSEL project, remains high in Congress and in the executive branch, despite the economic downturn. Johnson was an original supporter of the lab, having secured $10 million in Housing and Urban Development grant funds in 2001.

Though Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. said he supports tightening the federal government's belt across all sectors of government, he said the decision to build DUSEL should be based on scientific promise and peer review — not politics.

Funding transition

The project has faced funding hurdles from the very beginning. In 2004 the state of South Dakota threw its full support behind the lab project. Since then it has invested more than $120 million in private funds and tax dollars to develop an interim laboratory to demonstrate that multidisciplinary science can be achieved at the site — and pave the way for the deeper federal facility. Today the not-yet-fully-built interim lab, known as the Sanford Lab, already hosts 19 biology, physics, geology and engineering experiments.

Two major experiments — the Large Underground Xenon dark matter detector and the MAJORANA Demonstrator that seeks to determine whether neutrinos are their own antiparticle — are slated to be deployed underground in late 2011. Clean room space to ensure the ultra-pure production of copper for the MAJORANA (pronounced MY-or-ah-na) project has already been completed, and scientists are now preparing to fashion copper that is not tainted by the cosmic radiation on the earth's surface. Ultra-purity is paramount, scientists say, since even the slightest radioactivity could devastate the multi-million dollar experiments.

The state's support has been crucial as the path to full federal funding is very long — and increasingly uncertain.

Last December the National Science Board nixed $29 million in anticipated federal funding that was expected to pick up when state dollars run out in 2011, raising eyebrows at the federal and state level. With an operating budget of about $1 million a month just to keep the site viable for science, lab officials say the funds were necessary to carry operations and to maintain a design and engineering team until the National Science Foundation decided whether to build DUSEL. The funds, officials said, were largely needed to continue pumping out the water that continually flows into the mine, and which filled the mine when it was closed a decade ago, as well as to maintain the minimal staff and contracts necessary to keep the site ready for federal approval.

The science board's unexpected decision raised caution flags throughout the scientific and political community, from Capitol Hill to Lead, as National Science Board members called for other science funding agencies, such as the Department of Energy, to come forward with funds.

"There are a whole range of other international deep labs being built, and we thought DUSEL needs to be considered within the international context," said National Science Board Chairman Dr. Ray Bowen. "NSF dollars are really limited, and we have to look and see where is the most effective use of NSF money ... and we didn't think the DUSEL bridge award was going down the right path."

In February 2011, the National Science Foundation pledged $4 million in federal funding that is expected to start in June and help carry operations at the lab for four months, until the 2012 fiscal year begins in October.

President Barack Obama's 2012 budget proposal includes $15 million to fund DUSEL from the Department of Energy. DUSEL supporters are hopeful that line item will survive sweeping budget cuts that are anticipated this year, since that is the money that will help keep operations going after the Sanford Lab runs out of dollars in October.

The funding move shifts the project from where it originated, as an answer to a National Science Foundation solicitation for underground lab proposals, to the Department of Energy's stewardship. Both agencies have experience in lab management, as the Department of Energy operates 10 national laboratories across the country, as well as other research facilities and infrastructure. The National Science Foundation devotes about a quarter of its budget to research instrumentation and infrastructure, including Amundsen-Scott South Pole station in Antarctica, and the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) High Magnetic Field Labs in Louisiana and Washington.

Important science investments

But no matter what agency calls the shots on the project, experts say investments in DUSEL must be made in order to preserve America's future as an economic leader.

"It's a large amount of money but it's a very small investment for a country such as the United States," Friedman said. "The real issue is, can America be great in science again? It is my belief that what you will get from DUSEL in the long run will more than pay that debt many times over."

In fact, he said, most economists agree that the percentage of our national economy that depends on science and technology is greater than one-third. Some economists even say that 70 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is attributable to science and technology investments.

"In one shape or another, the accumulated technology is probably even more than (70 percent)," said John Quinn, president of National American University in Rapid City and an economist. "Technology drives productivity and productivity drives human progress. What the DUSEL represents is basic science that can drive economic activity."

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