November/December 2002

A Time for the Advanced National Seismic System

In his address to the Seismological Society of America at our Annual Meeting in Victoria last April, U.S. Geological Survey Director Charles (Chip) Groat gave us renewed confidence that the time for the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) to move from promise to reality is now. As most of you know, the ANSS will be a nationwide network of 7,000 seismographs and strong-motion instruments, both on the ground and in buildings, that will provide scientists and engineers with the digital-quality data that are so desperately needed to understand ground-motion and building-response processes. ANSS is also critical for emergency response, providing real-time information on the distribution and severity of earthquake shaking. ANSS will replace the inadequate and antiquated 30-year-old seismographic equipment that forms the backbone of most regional networks.

The blueprint for ANSS is laid out in USGS Circular 1188, submitted to Congress in 1999 in response to a 1997 law (Public Law 105-47) that called for USGS to "provide for the assessment of regional seismic monitoring networks in the United States", including "the need to update the infrastructures used for collecting seismological data for research and monitoring of seismic events in the U.S." The ANSS plan is a consensus document, the product of a series of workshops on the nation's seismic monitoring needs. Preparation of the ANSS plan, and ultimately its implementation, involves not only USGS but also the entire seismic monitoring community, as well as the user communities. In an unprecedented show of unity, the seismological, engineering, and emergency-response communities from the local to the national levels all came together to forge the ANSS vision as laid down in Circular 1188.

The ANSS plan requires a capital expenditure of $170 million in new equipment over a five-year period ($34 million/year). So when $185,600,000 over five years for ANSS was authorized by Congress in 2000 (Public Law 106-503), seismologists eagerly anticipated its rapid implementation. Done by 2005, right? Our eager expectation has since been dampened by the wet blanket of political reality. Many of us seismologists have learned more than we cared to know about the difference between authorization and appropriation within the U.S. political system. The essence of the issue can be expressed by this simple inequality: $(appropriated) ≠ $(authorized). In our case, in Fiscal Year 2000, $1.6 million was appropriated for ANSS, $3.6 million was appropriated in FY2001, $3.9 million was appropriated in FY2002, and it appears likely that $3.9 million will be appropriated in FY2003. At this rate, it will take 50 years to complete ANSS!

The problem is that many more dollars are authorized every year than are actually available to be appropriated and spent. The road from authorization to appropriation is a political minefield that we have not yet successfully crossed. Our problem has been that significant funding for ANSS has never been part of the President's budget request. This means that funds will not be appropriated for this initiative unless a well placed champion in the Congress or Senate emerges--one who is willing to expend his or her limited political clout to push it through. The disheartening reality is that politicians are unlikely to cash in their political chips on a matter of national interest, because they need to reserve them to expend in local or regional matters important to their constituents. ANSS is just not the Number 1 priority for anyone. It makes sense from every point of view and will save the country money and lives in the long run. But it is not an election issue.

In light of this political reality, how can ANSS make the leap from authorization to appropriation? Short of waiting for a $50 billion earthquake loss to a U.S. urban center to galvanize the nation, there is only one way. ANSS must be in the President's budget request. Neither the House nor the Senate is likely to add more ANSS funding than the administration requests; both, however, are likely to support the requested level. To get this into the President's budget request, the administration at all levels must support ANSS in a way it has not yet done. This is why Director Groat's message to SSA this spring was so important.

Director Groat outlined the amazing amount of progress that has actually been achieved with the limited funding to date, but acknowledged that in relation to the required infrastructure "we have a long way to go." He then tackled the nitty-gritty question of how to get substantial increases for ANSS into the President's budget. According to Groat:

"The highest Presidential priority is homeland security, which affects us in several ways. Certainly there will be an impact on the USGS budget, along with the budgets of most of the Executive Branch, as resources are shifted to protect the nation from the threat of terrorism. The bottom line is that we can expect reduced funds for discretionary programs over the next few years. However, given the emphasis on protecting life and property, we have the chance--in fact the responsibility--to show how and where scientific research can help make the nation safer from all of the risks we face, natural or unnatural."

Director Groat's suggestion that there is a link between homeland security and the mitigation of natural disasters echoes an interesting editorial by Donald Kennedy in Science (18 January 2002). Kennedy points out that "[b]ecause our societies have been made vulnerable both to natural disasters and to human attack, we can obtain a double dividend from successful planning. ... Science can play a role in helping with prevention and mitigation as well as recovery and repair. It will make its greatest contribution if we consider our vulnerability to terror attacks and to natural disasters jointly rather than separately. Because our social and economic arrangements have made us vulnerable to both, we can gain from working on them together."

Director Groat outlined the steps that the USGS is taking to make President Bush's Science Advisor, John Marburger, cognizant of the important connection between homeland security and earthquake hazards in terms of achieving the President's objectives for the security of the nation. As Groat put it, "Mother Nature may lack the malice of the terrorist, but compensates with endless energy, dogged persistence, and lethal recklessness."

Groat pointed to the earthquake program as one of the lead USGS programs in terms of both funding and research stature and pledged that ANSS is his key new thrust for the program: "One of my goals as Director is to see ANSS receive full funding. ... We are making this our highest priority. I and others at the USGS will be working closely with the Office of Management and Budget to seek the full authorized amount of funding for ANSS for FY04 and subsequent years." (Note: The Office of Management and Budget is responsible for the final funding levels for USGS in the President's budget request.)

Groat explained that success in this effort hinges on making links with the heightened interest in security and with parallel efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase funding for disaster programs, both natural and human-induced. To this end, he plans to build support with Department of Interior Secretary Norton and Deputy Secretary Griles. Support for ANSS at the upper levels of the Department of the Interior, and outside influences on the Office of Management and Budget, are the biggest challenge. To meet this challenge, Groat plans to focus on ANSS as the Number 1 priority among major USGS projects and develop a broader constituency for the program. The commitment of the Director of USGS to ANSS as its top priority is an extremely positive development, and the reason for our optimistic opinion that FY04 can provide an important step in obtaining full funding of ANSS.

Finally, Director Groat turned his attention to what we as scientists can do to deepen support for ANSS. In doing so, he quoted from recent remarks made by Congressman Sherry Boehlert, the Chair of the House Science Committee:

"Support for science in Congress is broad, but it isn't always deep. While virtually no one opposes science spending in principle, it can get sacrificed to pay for other priorities. ... All of you need to do a better job of telling people in my position just how much is at stake in funding you. And that message has to go out to more than the usual suspects--people like me or folks who represent districts that have national labs."

Director Groat spoke of the need to make our message clear and unambiguous, something scientists are typically reluctant to do. He pointed to the success of medical researchers in obtaining funding and suggested that their success is attributable to the effectiveness and relevance of their message: "The medical profession doesn't seek to understand cancer, but to cure it. The understanding is of course an essential step, but not the end point." Director Groat challenged us as scientists to set a "bold yet appropriate goal", perhaps even a return to the original NEHRP goal of predicting earthquakes: "We need a goal that people, the Administration, and Congress can relate to: bold and with obvious benefits to people's lives and property. ... With new observing/monitoring systems like ANSS, EarthScope, ... GPS, we are beginning to develop the observational database and build the models needed."

The gauntlet has been thrown down: We must make the case for earthquake science and our social relevance. We can't prevent earthquakes. We can't yet predict earthquakes, and perhaps we never will. But we CAN promise both to diagnose and cure earthquake risk. Seismology is a data-driven discipline, and ANSS is the modern tool we need. Let's be bolder in our promises for ANSS and the future of seismology. We need to take this message to Washington, and across the country, at the same time that USGS is pushing within the administration for ANSS. We need to speak loudly and clearly: Earthquake risk is a dire national threat, and ANSS is the diagnostic tool that can prevent future national losses on a scale even greater than the tragic losses of September 11. This is not a role that scientists like to play, but if we are truly committed to making ANSS a reality, we will do it with enthusiasm.

Gail Atkinson and Terry Wallace

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.

Posted: 4 December 2002