Going Underground and Crossing Boundaries
Peter Smeallie

Deep into the evening at the International Workshop on Neutrinos and Subterranean Science (NeSS) held in September in Washington, a noted geoscientist in a room full of fellow scientists and geoengineers expressed exasperation at the thought that an underground laboratory could not be put in place relatively quickly and inexpensively at 8,000 feet below the surface. “The mine is already there,” he explained. “If we give you the specifications about what we want, what is the problem with building it?”

Across the table sat one of the world’s premier tunnel designers, a member of the National Academy of Engineering. “Are you aware that in the history of civilization, there has never been a functional space for humans to work and socialize at a depth of 8,000 feet?” he said. “We have no idea, within current engineering practice, how to ventilate, how to provide fire egress, even how to keep the temperature at a comfortable level.” He went on to say that these challenges were not showstoppers, but that the engineers would have to work with the geoscientists and physicists to make a functioning underground laboratory.

The merging of geoscience and engineering comes to the fore of any discussion over the potential for an underground laboratory. The development of any underground facility requires detailed and specialized engineering practice. The knowledge base for this practice has as its basis the geosciences. Constructing a deep laboratory facility requires integrating the best of both worlds. My first exposure to these different perspectives came upon my appointment as the director of the Geotechnical Board at the National Research Council. (I came out of the “above-ground” arena of architecture and construction engineering research.) One of the first studies undertaken through the board’s U.S. National Committee for Rock Mechanics was a comprehensive look at rock fractures and fluid flow. The study committee included experts in rock mechanics, civil engineering, geophysics, geochemistry, geology and geohydrology. It took months for the committee to simply agree on terms, including what really is a fracture. The committee’s report, issued in 1996, called for an underground facility for research on fractures from a cross-disciplinary viewpoint. Although it took much effort, the committee realized that issues of great importance intersect the various disciplines.

Disciplinary stovepiping is not exclusive to the intersection between engineering and geoscience. Within engineering, the same tendencies are evident. I now manage the American Rock Mechanics Association, a professional society of members who have an interest in working with or studying rocks. Our members come primarily from the civil, petroleum and mining engineering fields. Each year, when we begin to plan the technical program of our annual symposium, the interests within these fields must work to assure that commonalities and differences are included on the agenda. Participants at the symposia state that they attend to find out what’s happening in other fields of application. If a civil engineer can learn one new drilling technique, for example, from engineers working in the oil patch, then the conference is worthwhile.

The challenge of cooperation between engineers and geoscientists is even greater. But it is also a crucial challenge to meet. Why? The first reason is practical, perhaps even political. It is better to weigh in on an issue with 50,000 backers than with 500. In the 1990s, Congress decided not to fund the proposed Superconducting Supercollider, an important project — and proposed underground laboratory — for the physics community. I have always believed that one reason this project was cancelled was that the physicists did not bring in geoscience and engineering professionals to take advantage of the tunneling part of the project. Bringing in the geoscience and engineering communities would have brought more backers to the program and shown that an underground laboratory can serve a large variety of science.

The second reason is a recognition of a changed world. In his article last May in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eugene Skolnikoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes the effects of technological developments, which he calls the “bedrock” of research. Such developments include the World Wide Web and the other communication systems that tie global networks together, as well as systems of international finance and energy. These developments, Skolnikoff says, have “expanded in size and scale the systems on which society depends.” They can also facilitate collaboration among laboratories, universities and other research institutions. It is now easier to undertake cross-disciplinary work, and the benefits are showing up in multiple applications, such as biotechnology. As these technological developments become more ingrained in scientific and engineering practice, it is inevitable and almost unavoidable that cooperation between the geosciences and geoengineering will increase.

Soon after our late-night exchange at the NeSS workshop, I noticed that the words “geoscience and engineering” began appearing together in the draft research agenda texts. The workshop participants were collaborating and were finding — as their colleagues on the National Research Council’s committee on fractures and fluid flow did a decade ago — that the interesting issues required a scientific as well as an engineering point of view. As Brian McPherson points out in this issue with the story “EarthLab,” if you want to take full advantage of an underground laboratory, you have to bring in the disciplines of both geoscience and engineering.

Smeallie is the executive director of the American Rock Mechanics Association and president of Research Opportunities Management, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. From 1990 to 1994, he was the director of the Geotechnical Board of the National Research Council. E-mail him at

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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