November/December 2006


Our year of commemorating the centennial of the Seismological Society of America is drawing to a close. We have had an opportunity to reflect on our long and proud history and to take a fresh look at preserving materials from our early years. During this process someone pointed out to me that I have been the chief staffer at SSA for more than one-third of the Society’s existence. Once I recovered from the personal implications of that observation, I began to review the many changes I’ve seen in my years with SSA.

BSSA Is (Almost) Everything

From the early minutes, we can see that the SSA founders had big ambitions for the Society. However, by the time I arrived in January 1970, the identity of SSA was defined as much by what it did not do as by what it did. At some point it had been decided that SSA would focus steadfastly on only two activities: publishing the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA) and holding annual meetings. Perry Byerly, who ran SSA as its elected secretary from 1930 to 1956, institutionalized this maxim in his 1964 published history. It was quoted frequently to me and to anyone who had the temerity to suggest that SSA take on new things.

In the early 1970s, funding for nuclear explosion monitoring prompted a great growth in the number of seismologists and seismic installations. The SSA membership and the number of papers in BSSA grew substantially, too. The San Fernando earthquake in 1971 was my first lesson in how funding flows after a disaster. But even as the science expanded, the Society stayed focused for many years on publishing the Bulletin and holding an annual meeting.

Occasionally an engineer serving on the SSA board of directors would bring a public policy statement for the board’s endorsement. Generally, these were not very controversial: Unreinforced parapets should be reinforced, building codes should be strengthened, etc. Sometimes these were approved easily. But on other occasions, lengthy discussions would ensue, one side quoting Byerly’s history and adding that we were scientists and therefore should remain above the political fray, the other side pointing to the SSA Objectives, adopted in the 1920s, that clearly set forth an SSA mission to inform and protect the public regarding seismic safety.

When I arrived in 1970, membership in scientific societies was viewed as a civic duty, a special responsibility to support the advancement of one’s field of knowledge.

BSSA May Not Be Enough?

There is great merit in focusing on an important task and doing it well. There is also great risk. I often could spot emerging trends in the field (and the larger culture) by reading the membership resignation letters. There was the period when engineers confessed (sometimes sheepishly, sometimes angrily) that they were canceling their SSA memberships because they could no longer understand the papers in BSSA. The Society found itself caught between a desire to serve the increasingly specialized science of seismology and the desire to include both science and engineering. It could not do both things in one publication. Less formal seismological materials also were gradually eliminated in order to maintain BSSA’s reputation.

Then there was the period when the resignation letters came from seismologists. They said, “My office has been downsized, I no longer have space in my bookcase for BSSA. I’ll use the library subscription (or my friend’s copy) instead, please cancel my membership.” These letters corresponded to decreases in funding for hazards-related seismology. Simultaneously, the number of pages published in all scientific journals grew as the pressure to publish increased. The letters also revealed the beginnings of a social change in the way that people felt about membership in societies like SSA.

When I arrived in 1970, membership in scientific societies was viewed as a civic duty, a special responsibility to support the advancement of one’s field of knowledge. A scientific society was a community in which every reputable scientist was expected to participate. The marketing and renewal letters contained wording that was designed to make people feel guilty if they were not members.

The success of this approach declined in tandem with changing attitudes about personal responsibility and the marketplace. Members increasingly came to view themselves as consumers of a product that one needed or one did not, just as one might need a textbook—or not. Membership—including BSSA—was a very good value for the money, but to some people that did not matter. If our major product was BSSA and people could borrow a copy without shame, why did they need to be members of the Society? What else did we have to offer?

BSSA and Beyond

As one of the first steps toward increasing the value of membership and expanding the SSA contribution to the science, we agreed to distribute the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior (IASPEI) Seismological Software Series for a very small handling fee, on condition that members received a discount. Even the redoubtable Willie Lee, who originated this program, was surprised by its success.

Then leaders of the Society went back to look at what had been lost in the specialization of BSSA. As a result, Seismological Research Letters (SRL) was expanded and reformatted to publish information that did not fit into a formal research paper but is essential in a science that is operational as well as theoretical. We began to talk about how the less-formal material also can be important in maintaining a sense of community in the discipline. Other changes were made to support community, including expanding our awards program and testing an electronic community for a group of members interested in discussing a specific topic.

The Society also realized that it had a vital role to play in government relations in the United States. There were some dramatic wake-up calls. Members of the U.S. Congress proposed eliminating the U.S. Geological Survey. A high-level study implied that we knew all we needed to know about the science of earthquakes; we just needed to implement that knowledge. We learned that SSA was the only organization in a position to speak for earthquake science on a number of important issues, because the larger scientific and engineering societies have too many other agendas to consistently focus on the policy concerns of earthquake science. It is not easy to communicate to members how pivotal the SSA government relations role has become for science. Some of our elected Society leaders now believe that these efforts, even on our shoestring budget, have become the Society’s major contribution to the field.

Still BSSA remained a priority. Dedicated editors worked long hours to ensure that it was well-regarded and well-cited, and submissions continued to grow. We knew that somehow we had to find the resources to go online and that the online edition needed to be more than just a picture of a printed page. References had to link to abstracts of other journals; searches had to be extremely functional. One of my greatest sources of pride is that we now have a high-quality online edition of BSSA from 1911 to present. Many small societies are still struggling to find the resources to present their journals in much less sophisticated formats. Of course we know our work is never done. We are moving on to electronic submission systems and trying to find the funds to digitize more of SRL.

Should SSA Even Exist?

Recently an earth science librarian told me that too many societies are publishing too many journals. They are social clubs, he said, and the leaders should get together, give up their turf wars, and merge their groups. SSA, he said, should either merge with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) or with the American Geophysical Union (AGU). I have heard this sort of recommendation occasionally for many years. I try to keep an open mind when presented with provocative ideas, so I have given it some thought. Of course a merger would be a decision of the leaders of the Society, not the staff. However, I personally have concluded that SSA has a unique and important role in a very important science.

We learned that SSA was the only organization in a position to speak for earthquake science on a number of important issues…

As a resident of a seismically active area, I am happy that earthquake engineers are there to make hard decisions and push for hazard mitigation. However, the temperament that makes them good engineers possibly makes it hard for them to understand the culture of science. During the planning of the joint 2006 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference, one engineer urged that the official “conference message” on Bay Area seismic mitigation should be reflected in every presentation and poster. A focused, unified message is indeed good hazard mitigation (and good public relations). The engineers seemed blissfully unaware, however, that imposing a unified message would not be appropriate for a science meeting. In the same vein, I am fascinated by many of the presentations at AGU and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) meetings, but I also pick up a trace of condescension about the applied nature of most hazards- related research. It appears to me that SSA walks a challenging and important tightrope between research and implementation as well as science and public safety.

Well Beyond

A centennial is not just a time to celebrate our achievements. At the end of the celebration, it’s time to ask: “Where do we go from here? What challenges do we face as we begin a second century?”

From my perspective as an association executive, there are the challenges that face all science and engineering societies. New models may be on the horizon for publishing and membership. Library subscriptions are declining and site licenses for electronic publications make them accessible from multiple locations on campus, potentially further impacting memberships. Smaller, nonprofit journals may have the most to lose from the movement to require “open access” to journals, even as commercial publishers are finding ways around it. Can we also find opportunities to broaden the distribution of research results and new financial models to support those efforts?

As the world is shrinking, all societies are debating whether and how to move from national or international to truly global. As I recall, in the early 1970s almost a third of SSA members lived outside the United States; that fraction now is about 36%. Although officers and directors came from other parts of North America, for many years the Society really was run by Californians. Now the leadership of SSA clearly is starting to internationalize. In the past few years we’ve had a strong Canadian president and our first European director. In the most recent election we came close to electing our first director from Japan. The new editor of SRL now lives in California, but she also has lived and worked in Europe and Mexico. What will a more global future look like? Will we have cooperative agreements with sister societies outside North America? Will we have sections in countries that do not have individual membership societies (the Bylaws now allow sections on any geographic area and even on special interests)? Will our relationship with international groups such as IASPEI change as well?

What are the big issues that earthquake science will focus on in the next decade? How will these big issues influence the way researchers work?

Given the key role of government relations in the current activities of SSA, it has been proposed that moving SSA headquarters to Washington, D.C. may be an issue for discussion in the next few years. What impact will globalization have on our government relations efforts, now largely focused in the United States?

What impact will globalization have on SSA meetings? Will we soon meet all over the world? And will the digital revolution that is transforming publishing transform meetings as well? Will the scientific community of the future look more like a chat room than a ballroom full of poster sessions? What attitude will new generations bring to the idea of membership in science societies? Some research indicates that the generation now entering the workforce wants to be involved and of service to humanity. Will we change in ways that offer them more opportunities to serve?

And I have saved the most important question for last: Where is the science going? Will we see more specialization? Will we see more integration? What are the big issues that earthquake science will focus on in the next decade? How will these big issues influence the way researchers work? How will hazard-focused researchers relate to engineers and to seismologists who image the structure of the earth?

SSA President Mike Fehler has proposed a special session at the 2007 SSA Annual Meeting in Hawaii on The Future of Earthquake Science. It is my hope that this session will stimulate conversations about how SSA will fit into the science of the 21st century.

Although it is hard for any of us to see very far into the future, we must take the time to make the effort, to lift our focus from the day-to-day tasks in front of us and scan the horizon. I think the forward-thinking founders of the Seismological Society of America would have heartily approved.

Susan Newman
Executive Director, Seismological Society of America
Email- snewman [at] seismosoc.org


To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, you may contact the SRL editor by sending e-mail to lastiz [at] ucsd.edu.