July/August 1996


"Seismology as a profession?" asked my industry lunch host, his eyes widening in disbelief as we discussed the plans for the university department where I work to become part of a new professional school focused on the environment. My host, a former geophysics professor and now owner of a very successful environmental contracting firm, knows well some of the pressures driving such plans and, even more to the point, knows well the current job market for environmental professionals--at least of the geophysical type. His surprise reflected that the seismology we were taught, and now practice and teach, had always fit into the category of Science, and occasionally even Art, but rarely Profession. A Master's degree in Professional Seismology, a Doctorate in the Practice of Seismology? "Who will hire these students?" he earnestly asked me, stealing the question I was intending to ask him next, albeit in a much more hopeful way. The remainder of our discussion focused on the nature of our move, ending with the agreement that it was a positive and necessary step.

So what are the plans for my department (twelve faculty) and our small program in seismology (one faculty, two research faculty, and three students); how did they come about and how do they fit in with the realities of this postearthquake prediction hype and (hopefully) post-Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty age? In the '50's and '60's our seismographs were charged with atomic dollars. In the late '70's and '80's the hard-won insights of prediction research carried financial support as well. And, lacking an interest in these areas, one could focus on the steady and seemingly available challenge of imaging the top of the crust for its structure and resources. A mix of all three could hardly be beat, whether you were in academia, government, or industry. When one was in decline, another picked up; when things got tight in basic science, it was possible to carry on basic research by more fully developing its applied sides. Now, unlike in previous cycles, all of this network seems to have failed at once. In universities like mine, the net product is low undergraduate enrollments and a crush of graduate students from overseas. (For the latter group, it seems the old mixture of government, industry, and academia is alive and well--more on this later.)

Many in the solid-earth-based sciences in this country, from students to CEO's and endowed chairs, view the present as an example of the past: We will be needed again--maybe not soon, but eventually. I thought this way in 1991 when I started teaching in addition to doing research, and I still believe it now. But I could also see that if our department was to progress, we needed to function in the present as well. It has turned out that this "present" was even closer at hand than I could foresee then. Further, it came from what should (and can) be a natural direction: our society's desires to understand and preserve our environment. I was asked about this direction and our university's new professional Nicholas School of the Environment (NSOE) by our department chair when I first arrived in '91. Still focused on getting back to research after the move, I think I replied something to the effect that what mattered to me was not the title or administration but the daily diet of research and teaching, and that I liked what I saw in the present configuration. In short, I had real hopes of being part of an exciting and growing place to work on seismology.

But the resources and students just were not there to continue the climb, however willing our administration and supporters were (and seemingly still are). Then came the crash of FY96, when even the USGS was RIFed; twice this spring I have read e-mail SOS messages from colleagues as far apart as Southern California and Montreal. The messages are simple and clear. With the number of students and grants declining, geology departments don't compete with, to be specific, environmental science and management (ES&M) departments. For example, a prominent Midwestern university has over 450 ES&M majors (!) and support from sources as diverse as alternative farming and military waste disposal. In its five-year life at our university, our professional school has grown to have 200 students earning Master's degrees in Environmental Management (MEM), the vast majority of whom are going on to jobs in such areas. In the meanwhile, while we are succeeding in supporting and placing our 30 or so graduate students, it is much more of a struggle than before, with the results of our efforts more in doubt than ever. It's no surprise that administrations are suggesting revolutionary changes.

Yet the farmer's soil comes from the underlying rock, and the paths of toxic wastes in disposal sites must be measured in geological time and circumstance. "What's the composition and structure of the subsurface? And by the way, you can't drill everywhere, so you'll have to measure most of it from the surface!" Evidently, until just this year perhaps, the interest and support have been there to study these subjects. And so the questions: Why is the geology ship showing signs of sinking? Why aren't the students and administrators interested in helping bail while the funding pumps aren't working in the right direction? And finally, why can't traditional geology departments like the one where I work adjust our educational and research sails for the moment so we don't lose the ship?

Without trivializing or avoiding the complexities of the first question, I think that a sufficient answer is that we are at the bottom of a typical geological boom-and-bust cycle. When the exploration of the midcontinent rift system and production of the deep-water gulf, for example, begin in earnest, I suspect programs with good basic earth sciences will be as sought after as in the past.

As for the questions of why financial help and programmatic adjustments have not been forthcoming, part of the problem has been cultural. For example, some earth scientists (myself included) have been uncomfortable with the idea of doing and teaching science that can polarize public opinion along political lines. Current students and administrators are also not particularly well acquainted or comfortable with our science's financial cycles. Further, since environmental science is inherently interdisciplinary, a selectively focused geology department like ours, emphasizing, for example, crustal processes, seems oddly out of date; that is, we seem an old-fashioned "hard-shell department." Initially, we reasoned that the quantitative methods of geology are broadly applicable to the natural and environmental sciences, and so we tried to attract students by offering a range of such courses. It turned out that most students had neither the background nor program flexibility to take them in our department.

Another example of cultural differences comes by way of financial support for students and research infrastructure (technical support, computers, software, and so forth). When my federal grants for these items started falling short, I turned to more local and industrial support, some of which included service and/or proprietary agreements negotiated within university guidelines. While these nontraditional sources have turned out to be crucial for us, try as I might, I have found that the gap between academic and industrial expectations is still too wide to be smoothly straddled by either party. (In one nightmarish scenario, I imagined our group desperately running refraction profile after refraction profile over a waste dump while frowning accountants looked on.) For this reason, such funding sources currently represent only very short-term solutions.

This comes back to the question posed to me by the department chair in '91 and how it might answer our dilemma. More than a year ago, it was proposed by our administration that the geology department become a program called Earth Systems Science (ESS) within NSOE, which at present has no departmental structure. After I distributed an e-mail message suggesting that this was like inviting the English department to become the program of Anglo Language Dynamics within a School of Critical Cultural Studies, I received four envelopes containing photocopied pages from various university catalogues with the ESS titles highlighted. These notwithstanding, I am still not sure I completely fathom what ESS is or who in our department does it. So far, this particular proposal has not carried the day.

What has gone forward is the plan for our department to become part of NSOE, adopting the title of the Duke University Division of Earth Sciences (or DUDES, as one of the grad students has pointed out). We have been charged, informally so far, with coming up with the following items: a new mission statement, a revised teaching focus, and a plan for recruiting externally supported professional students. Faced with our imminent entrance into the NSOE, our environmental science counterparts, who until now have operated as one faculty and already had these items in place, must now establish internal divisions. Needless to say, at the beginning both felt either threatened or in need of a stiff drink. Nonetheless, the process is proceeding, with long discussions, e-mail exchanges, and committee and plenary meetings.

For my part, I have thought long and hard about the three charges--mission, teaching, recruiting--and tried to do my homework on them, especially with respect to seismology. In the end, my ideas have evolved from many hours of discussions with many people inside and outside of my university. On the program and division level, my suggested answers to these charges are:

  • Mission: To observe and analyze accessible earth processes as complex systems.
  • Teaching: Rigorous instruction in these processes and the hazards and risks they pose.
  • Recruiting: Advertise internationally programs leading to coterminal-BS/MS and MS's in Environmental Science and Technology (or MEST).

I make these suggestions with specific examples (and our particular situation) in mind. In the case of the mission statement, studying fluids in crustal faults and fractures using seismic tomography and magnetotelluric methods would fit well, while studying the generation of deep-focus earthquakes would not. Likewise, a class in probabilistic geological hazard analysis would be more germane than a course in inverse theory. As for recruiting, the aim of offering a 5-year BS/MS and a 1.5 to 2-year MEST would be to take advantage of the boom in overseas geotechnical and North American environmental markets. The international emphasis takes into account that, in 1995, there were four times as many sophomores enrolled in geoscience programs overseas as in North America, and nearly half of the students from these programs were continuing on to higher degrees.

On the personal level, I have tried to add these ideas to our efforts in seismology in several ways. In addition to applying for basic research grants, we have researched and written several interdisciplinary and interuniversity "team" proposals to study the fractures and fluids of active, potentially economic, hydrothermal systems. This spring I taught a course in environmental geology and geophysics to 37 students, using a case history approach that brought in professionals from government and industry to present case studies from their areas of expertise. The cases included quantitative hazard analysis, waste disposal sitting, subsurface remote sensing, acid rock mitigation, landslides, and beach erosion. I have used personal time to attend meetings and discussions on curriculum and job markets and to communicate with potential employers and students. Perhaps most importantly, I agreed to serve as a seismology reviewer for a potential low-level radioactive waste disposal site, including participating in monitoring the quality of the related field studies. As a result of this work, I have been able to run several departmental and class field trips to the site for direct experience with these types of problems.

So what are the chances these efforts will lead to success--meaning continuing to be part of an active, exciting community of scientists working on the nature of the source and propagation of elastic waves in a tectonically active Earth? In my case, a good sign would be the chance to continue some work on fault-zone wave propagation at Parkfield, California. This requires support for retrieving tapes from the field and for fast computers at home in North Carolina. For new Ph.D.'s coming out of big-name seismology schools, the good sign would be academic jobs that don't categorically rule out classical research and also allow some time to pick up the basics of environmental science and technology.

Admittedly, mine is an evolutionary approach to what I think is ESS seismology. I also think it is a responsible and realistic one, particularly with respect to our students. Given another turn of the employment cycle, universities that don't evolve but choose to carry out the revolutions I hear about on the Net will not be able serve their members well; our solid-earth geosciences will come from overseas rather than from our own universities. Is our Nicholas School of the Environment the answer for us? I am planning on it.

Peter E. Malin
Division of Earth Sciences
Duke University
Durham, NC 27706

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 11 February 1999