November/December 1996


As this issue of Seismological Research Letters goes to press, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that calls for the end to all testing of nuclear weapons. This international treaty will be the culmination of a process that has been closely intertwined with seismology, both research and funding, for more than a generation. A great goal of seismology has been reached, one that will clearly have a direct impact on the well-being of society.

With this major milestone in the history of seismology, it is appropriate to reflect on our roles and responsibilities as publicly funded scientists. We hear increasing questions about the relevance of science and the need for federal support of basic research. As a community of research scientists, we must develop ways to bring our science to the public and convince them that basic research in seismology is worthy of their support.

Earlier this year, in an address to the American Astronomical Society, Neal Lane, Director of NSF, stated: "We are now challenged to more clearly articulate the benefits of federally funded research and education to a nation that is largely uninformed about science and increasingly skeptical of federal funding of all sorts. It is now important that scientists move beyond their intuitive understanding of the importance of their work and begin to fold in anecdotal evidence of the tangible societal benefits of scientific research and education. ... But in times like these, when balancing the budget and cutting taxes are sacred, being important and respected is not good enough. ... If you don't take it as one of your professional responsibilities to inform your fellow citizens about the importance of the science and technology enterprise, then that public support, critical to sustaining it, isn't going to be there. ... Is it self-serving to advocate support for science? Perhaps. But if the self is the American people and the position of leadership of the U.S. in all fields of science and technology in the 21st century, then I wouldn't worry too much about appearing self-serving."

If the Director of NSF wants to encourage us to be self-serving in the name of science, then I think we should rise to the challenge! Rather than be limited by the traditional view of the isolated scientist expecting government funding as an entitlement, we should be prepared with clear and explicit arguments that are both understandable and compelling to the public and Congress. If we are not prepared to do so, or if we do not have the conviction that our endeavors are worthwhile, then I suggest we should be prepared to look elsewhere for employment. I am not suggesting that we dilute our science. The quality of individual research results must continue to be the primary measure of success. Nor am I suggesting that proper presentation of our work to the public will be easy. However, I cannot think of many areas of science that are more appealing to the public or more appropriate for federal support than seismology and the earth sciences.

Over the past five years, strong support from those in the U.S. Congress endorsing a CTBT has provided funding to IRIS and the USGS for a rapid expansion of the Global Seismographic Network (GSN) because of the role that it can play in a global test ban. The stations of the GSN have earned the respect of the international community as significant components in the CTBT process. In fact, more than half of the current 90 stations of the GSN have been accepted as part of the International Seismic Monitoring System (ISMS) being established to support the CTBT. The acceptance of the GSN stations by the international community has been strengthened by the deep commitment of those within U.S. scientific and policy communities who are convinced of the importance of the CTBT and of the significant role that seismology can play in enforcing that treaty. The inclusion of GSN stations within the ISMS is a major accomplishment that should not be underestimated; however, the responsibility that accompanies that acceptance should also not be underestimated. We have assumed a significant commitment that will require diligence to maintain in the future.

With strong support from NSF, IRIS is working with our USGS partners to ensure that a solid funding base is established for the future health of the GSN. Maintenance of the network itself, however, is only one aspect of the continuing involvement of seismology in the CTBT. The signing of a treaty will not end technical debates about monitoring. There will continue to be questions raised about the identification of suspicious events and the enforcement of a treaty in different parts of the globe, many of them in poorly known tectonic environments. As the CTBT is signed and eventually comes into force, increasing emphasis will be placed on the enormous technical challenges inherent in operating an international monitoring system. Accordingly, we need to ensure that the case is made for a viable research program in seismology, capable of expanding the strength of a well monitored treaty.

Earthquakes are another area where society meets seismology with fascination and significance. News coverage and popular literature have made the public increasingly aware of the effects of earthquakes, but there still exists only an elementary appreciation of their underlying causes. In part, this reflects fundamental gaps in our scientific understanding of the earthquake process. The National Academy of Sciences has recently formed a special Committee on the Science of Earthquakes. Chaired by Tom Jordan of MIT and funded by the Academy endowment, this committee provides an exceptional opportunity to review the accomplishments of earthquake studies and to help chart a course for future research programs. An important task for the committee will be not only to provide recommendations for a new initiative in earthquake science, but to do so in a context that clearly defines the relevance of fundamental scientific investigations in the reduction of earthquake risk. A Web site has been established at http://www2.nas.edu/eqsci to provide information on the progress of the committee's work. Your input and participation are encouraged.

Seismological research and practice rely heavily on efforts both individual and collective. Seismology, in common with the rest of the earth sciences, has traditionally been a strongly individualistic endeavor. Seismologists of old poured over earthquake bulletins and precious photographic seismograms from their local observatories. The classical field geologist mapped a quadrangle in quiet isolation. Most field experiments in seismology were carried out by small groups with limited numbers of portable instruments. At the same time, an enigma of seismology is that, as a global and interdisciplinary science, it cannot exist without a solid foundation of cooperation and data exchange. One station cannot accurately locate an earthquake. Studies of the Earth's deep interior involve the use of data from numerous stations around the globe. The assessment of earthquake hazards requires the integration of a broad spectrum of earth science and engineering information. While individual scientists can do much--through their research results, in the classroom, and through personal contacts--to raise public awareness to the importance of seismology, we also need to take advantage of the broader exposure provided by community resources such as SSA, IRIS, SCEC, and AGU.

The IRIS Consortium provides an example of the opportunities created by a coordinated community approach to defining programs for the support of science. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently completed a year-long review of the IRIS-2000 proposal, and IRIS and NSF are developing a new Cooperative Agreement for the support of IRIS programs over the next five years. The primary focus of IRIS will continue to be the support of facilities for seismological research. However, we are encouraged by NSF to expand our activities in education and outreach, and we invite the participation of SSA members in helping to define and carry out this work.

In his 1990 Presidential Address to the SSA, John Filson reminded us that the Society was founded in 1906 following the San Francisco earthquake for the purpose of "the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge concerning earthquakes and allied phenomena, and to enlist the support of the people and government in the attainment of these ends." As public support for science comes under increasing scrutiny, we must encourage coordinated efforts within our community to articulate--to the public, to Congress, and to the funding agencies--the importance and excitement of seismology and the role that research can continue to play in solving critical societal issues, such as reducing earthquake risk and supporting the full achievement of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

David W. Simpson, President
Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology
1616 North Fort Myer Drive Suite 1050
Arlington, VA 22209

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: 22 January 1999