Scientists scramble for money after Congress cuts funding for neutrino detector in northern Minnesota

Physicist Marvin Marshak
University of Minnesota
Physicist Marvin Marshak

A new bid to chase mysterious neutrinos deep in the ground of northern Minnesota is becoming a test case for America’s will to hold its position as a world champion of innovation.

In August, Congress passed the America Competes Act, which was to affirm the nation’s leadership by doubling investment in broad areas of basic research. The White House declared it to be “a comprehensive strategy to keep America the most innovative nation in the world.”

In December, however, Congress cut research funding, including the proposed neutrino detector near Ash River even though the U.S. Energy Department had recommended it as exactly the kind of basic research the nation needs.

So instead of breaking ground on the Minnesota project as planned this spring, scientists are scrambling for dollars which are proving nearly as elusive as those invisible neutrinos.

“We have enough money to keep going at a low level but not to break ground,” said Marvin Marshak, one of the University of Minnesota physicists working on the project.

Meanwhile, the world is taking note.

Last week, Nature, the British science journal, challenged the sincerity of the August imperative. Calling cuts to the neutrino research and other projects “a budget blow to U.S. science,” Nature noted that other countries are proceeding apace with research investments.

Congress members whose districts had a stake in the research are calling for explanations of how this step could square with the America Competes Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support.

“Without government-supported, pure science research the rest of our country’s R & D falls apart,” said John Schadl, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. “This is the type of thing we absolutely should be funding, and Jim supports it 100 percent… . What we need now is the political clout to do it.”

Sen. Barack Obama and other Congress members from Illinois sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget reiterating that funding for the Minnesota project and one other high energy physics program led by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago is critical to “America’s role as the innovator in technology.”

Ghost particles
In Minnesota, the fuss is over a hunt for particles so common that they surround us, coming from the sun and many other sources. Trillions of neutrinos will pass through your body as you read this article.

“Ghost particles,” is the name NOVA gave to them in a 2006 PBS broadcast.

“Capturing these ghosts is one of the greatest challenges scientists have ever faced,” NOVA’s narrator said. “Without them, the stars would not shine and the Earth would be a dead and frozen world. They make existence possible and contain the secret of our past.”

Studies of neutrinos are considered so important that at least three scientists have won Nobel Prizes for findings that advanced understanding of the particles.

“Overall, we are trying to understand the fundamental forces that have shaped the universe since the Big Bang,” Marshak said.

“None of this is on a time scale that directly affects our lives,” Marshak said. “But science and technology do have enormous effects on everyday things. When Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, he could hardly have imagined it would be used for GPS satellites that would help farmers plant straight rows of corn.”

Neutrinos are tricky to study because they are hard to catch. They travel close to the speed of light, lack electrical charge and pass through ordinary matter nearly undisturbed.

That’s where northern Minnesota comes in. It was chosen years ago to receive beams of neutrinos fired from a particle accelerator at Fermilab. The first Minnesota site, a half-mile underground in the former Soudan mine, catches beams that race 450 miles in a split second through the dense earth beneath northern Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota — no tunnel needed because of the slippery nature of neutrinos.

Detectors at both ends measure the beams’ composition and other factors for comparisons that can reveal insights into how neutrinos behaved during the journey.

Zeroed out
Now, scientists say it is time for a second detector to explore properties of a different type of neutrino. They chose the Ash River location near International Falls because it’s as far from Chicago as they could go without leaving the United States. The University of Minnesota has negotiated an option to purchase the 50-acre site.

The project, called NOvA, was sponsored by the Department of Energy, and $200 million was to be spent in Minnesota over several years with another $70 million going for Illinois’s end. About $7 million already has gone for initial planning and design, Marshak said. This years’ budget called for another $30 million.

The plan had sailed through congressional hearings.

“Everything was going ahead and there was enthusiasm for it in Congress,” Marshak said. “Then, at the last minute, it was zeroed out.”

What happened is a classic story in the government’s chaotic appropriations process. Congressional Democrats wanted funds for domestic projects such as fixing up dilapidated housing. Bush threatened to veto any package that didn’t hold to his spending caps. So Congress cut what it could.

Now, each side blames the other for falling down on the August commitment to science.

Marshak said the energy department remains “very interested in going ahead with the project” and is looking for alternative funding, as is Oberstar.

“We are not considering it done by any means,” Schadl said.

Fermilab, the nation’s premier center for this type of research, took a double whammy in the cuts, also losing funding for research on the International Linear Collider which was to help lead next-generation studies of the universe. Now Fermilab plans to lay off 10 percent of its employees.

Marshak said he doesn’t expect layoffs in Minnesota and experiments in the Soudan mine should not be affected.

“We have $2 million left from fiscal year 2007 appropriations which the Department of Energy has told us we can continue to spend on the project,” he said.

But the setback is discouraging for scientists nationwide.

“What began as a year of soaring rhetoric in support of science seems likely to end with agency officials and research advocates shaking their heads and wondering what went wrong,” the journal Science commented in December.

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