Neutrino project is in Bush’s budget (for now)

A major new neutrino-detection project proposed for northern Minnesota got impressive support in a science portion (PDF) of the budget President Bush released this week.

In his otherwise austere domestic spending proposal, Bush called for $37 million next year for the project proposed to be built at Ash River near International Falls. It is considered a prime example of the basic research that Congress and the White House have said is needed to maintain America’s lead in science and technology.

But the Minnesota and Illinois scientists working on the project can be justified in holding their applause. They have seen this act before.

Last year, Bush budgeted $30 million for the project. Congress seemed eager to go along. Then, in a showdown with the White House over other domestic spending priorities, Congress slashed funding for the Minnesota project and other research. 

Now, scientists across the board are holding their hopes in check until they see what Congress does this year with Bush’s latest proposal.

A headline this week in an online edition of the journal Nature summed up the mood: “Bush asks for more physics — again.”

Plans for $200 million in Minnesota
In addition to the neutrino project, Bush’s proposal would increase funding for energy research, other high-energy physics, engineering, computer sciences, nanotechnology and some bioscience research.

While Bush proposed a 15 percent increase in spending for the physical sciences, his budget would more or less hold the line on funding for medical research, which has received large increases in the past few years.

The Minnesota neutrino project, called NOvA, is sponsored by the Department of Energy. Plans call for spending $200 million in Minnesota over several years. Another $70 million is to be spent at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago, which is collaborating with the University of Minnesota on the project. 

About $7 million already has gone for initial planning and design.

The research involves study of particles called neutrinos which are mysteriously elusive even though they surround us and trillions of them pass through our bodies every minute. They travel close to the speed of light, lack electrical charge and pass through ordinary matter nearly undisturbed.

The overall aim of the research is to gain better understanding of the forces that have shaped the universe since the Big Bang, said Marvin Marshak, one of the University of Minnesota physicists working on the project.

One project already under way
The section of Bush’s budget calling for the funding notes that such research will provide new insights into the fundamental nature of matter, energy, space and time.

In one neutrino detection project already underway, scientists fire beams of  neutrinos from a particle accelerator at Fermilab and catch them a half-mile underground in Minnesota’s former Soudan mine. Detectors at both ends measure the beams’ composition and other factors for comparisons that can reveal insights into how neutrinos behave.

The new project would explore properties of a different type of neutrino. The University of Minnesota has negotiated an option to purchase the 50-acre Ash River site, and organizers had planned to begin construction this spring.

While they look toward next year, the scientists also are working with Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and others in Congress to restore some of the funding they lost for fiscal year 2008.

“Right now we are hoping for a … supplemental appropriation so we can get started and avoid the inflationary cost increases that always result from delay,” Marshak said.

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