Press Award Demonstrates Many Facets of Public Service in Seismology

16 December 2019–The term “public service” has broad meaning when it comes to the Frank Press Public Service Award, which the Seismological Society of America created to honor outstanding efforts on behalf of seismology and public safety. In part, the award has a broad reach due to the trailblazing and diverse set of accomplishments by its first recipient and namesake, Frank Press.

Press’ scientific accomplishments as the Director of the Caltech Seismological Lab and at MIT as the Chairman of the Department of Geology and Geophysics are well-known, encompassing earthquake seismology, seismic wave propagation, crust and mantle structure and even the geological composition of the Moon. He was the co-author of two popular textbooks, Earth (1974, 1986) and Understanding Earth (1998, 2000, 2002, 2003), that served as the introduction to earth sciences for thousands of students.

Frank Press

However, his efforts on behalf of science policy and American public policy were equally impressive, as a member of President John F. Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory Committee between 1959 and 1963; as Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1980; and as President of the National Academy of Sciences from 1981 to 1993. He is the only seismologist to have served as NAS President, and the only person to have served as both Presidential Science Advisor and President of NAS.

Since 2003, the Press Award has been one way for SSA to raise the profile and importance of these facets of professional service. “Our science studying earthquakes has long had important implications at the interface between science and society,” said Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and current secretary of the Society. “While scientific excellence is often highlighted and rewarded, contributions to providing information and encouraging the development and implementation of plans to mitigate the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis are not as widely recognized by our colleagues.”

ANSS in 2014

Some of the 11 recipients have been recognized for their efforts in building and disseminating critical ideas and tools in seismology that the field almost takes for granted now, such as David Wald’s role in creating ShakeMap, Art Frankel’s update of national seismic hazard maps that were among the first to be used in seismic provisions for building codes, and Walter Arabasz’s key contributions that helped develop the Advanced National Seismic System.

Kamome tsunami book, co-authored by Lori Dengler

Several recipients have been honored for their work in keeping the public safe, prepared and resilient against earthquakes and accompanying threats, including Lori Dengler and her work preparing coastal communities for tsunamis, Brian Tucker’s work at the nonprofit GeoHazards International to make some of the world’s most vulnerable communities safer from earthquakes, and Hugo Yepes’ regional focus on hazard assessment and risk mitigation in Ecuador and South America.

Still others, including Michael Wysession and Lucy Jones, were recognized for their public service in the fields of science education, communication and public outreach, including developing next generation science education standards and public awareness efforts like the Great ShakeOut Drill.

ShakeOut ad

The Press Award also recognizes seismologists who have risen to the occasion to provide expertise and thoughtful advice in the face of natural disasters and tragic events, such as Randall White and his techniques in eruption forecasting that are used at volcano observatories around the world, Arabasz’s work with government officials and the public to help understand the 2007 Crandall Canyon, Utah mine disaster; and Eric Calais’ rapid and sustained response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The Frank Press Public Service Award may be given to any individual, combination of individuals or organization. Any member of the SSA may nominate a candidate for the Press Award. A nomination package must be submitted to the Secretary of the Society no later than 15 February of each year. For more information on the award and nominations, please visit