SSA 2015 Presidential Address

Following is the text of the Presidential Address given by SSA Past President Lisa Grant Ludwig at the SSA 2015 Annual Meeting in Pasadena on April 21st.

SSA 2015 Presidential Address
Seismology and Global Change

Lisa Grant Ludwig
SSA Past President
21 April 2015

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Thank you for attending the 2015 SSA Annual Meeting! Your individual and collective decisions to attend led to a new record—more than 800 registered participants! This record attendance illustrates an important point: Your decisions matter. How you choose to spend your time makes a difference. In the short time I have to talk to you today, I will focus your attention on some important problems that are worthy of your time, attention, and creative energy.

Our world is changing very fast, in many ways, large and small, good and bad. Some recent changes are creating problems for the seismological community. They aren’t science problems but they have an impact on the earth science community, and increasingly, on SSA members, especially in the United States.

The first problem is that there is a bias against supporting earth science with public funds. This bias is rooted in concerns about the economic and policy implications of climate-change research and findings. Many of you are already aware of this problem.

Unfortunately, many policymakers have concluded that earth science does not promote innovation, and therefore earth science is a poor investment.

The second problem is new. There is a recent change in the perceived value of earth science. This change is rooted in global economic issues and competition for leadership in technological innovation. Many seismologists are not aware of this problem. As heavy users of advanced computing and related technologies, we clearly see the link between seismology and technological innovation. Unfortunately, many policymakers have concluded that earth science does not promote innovation, and therefore earth science is a poor investment.

To seismologists, the value of earth science is obvious, and we justifiably tend to assume that its value is recognized by others. The core purpose of SSA is to “advance seismology and the understanding of earthquakes for the benefit of society.” Whatever people might think about climate change, it is an indisputable fact that earthquakes kill people and destroy infrastructure. There are compelling reasons for trying to understand earthquake processes and effects. Seismological science and public interest intersect and overlap. Earthquake science should be an easy sell because investments in seismology provide important benefits to society. Right?

Unfortunately, there is underinvestment in seismology. Here are some recent examples in the United States:

    1. The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program,1 or NEHRP, which first passed Congress in 1977, was last amended and reauthorized in 2004. That five-year re-authorization lapsed in 2009, just a few months before the catastrophic Haiti earthquake. Despite considerable efforts by SSA and others, and the subsequent occurrence of the catastrophic 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster, Congress has not reauthorized this important program.
    2. Last year, the National Science Foundation EAR program budget was cut,2 in part due to sequestration, while other programs within NSF were spared. The cut affected earthquake-related research. I’ll say more about that in a few minutes.

there is underinvestment in seismology. Here are some recent examples

  1. In recent years, many SSA members have not been able to attend the SSA annual meeting3 due to travel restrictions on government scientists/employees.
  2. In the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake program, there is a ratio of approximately one new hire for every two retirements.4 Clearly, this is not sustainable.
  3. With regard to infrastructure, there is concern about the fragility of financial support for critical networks and facilities such as the Global Seismographic Network, and other seismic and geodetic instrumentation (e.g., SAGE and GAGE) within the United States.5
  4. And even in areas where new funding is anticipated, such as for a West Coast Earthquake Early Warning system, the amount is far less than what is actually needed to turn the existing demonstration project into an operational system.6

Why are we underinvesting in seismology?

Last month, the venerable journal National Geographic, which has been in print for 125 years, published a cover titled “The War on Science.” Author Joel Achenbach writes the following:7

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. … Many people in the United States … believe that climate activists are using the threat of global warning to attack the free market and industrial society generally. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the most powerful Republican voices on environmental matters, has long declared global warming a hoax. 8

I will point out that Sen. Inhofe’s state, Oklahoma, currently holds the distinction of being the most seismically active state in the contiguous United States, with many earthquakes induced by activities associated with the oil and gas industry.9

Let’s look at the concepts of change and innovation. I will read an excerpt from a 2013 report by Stephen Ezell and Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a highly ranked10 and influential “global think tank”:

America’s economy has changed substantially over the last 20 years. Innovation—the development of new products, services, and business models—has become the key factor in long-term U.S. competitiveness in a globalized world. … It’s time to clearly recognize that certain research programs the National Science Foundation in particular supports are much more important to our country’s economic well-being and competitiveness than others, and explicitly take this into account when making budgetary allocation decisions. In particular, Congress should direct … a reallocation of NSF resources toward the kinds of science that has direct economic and industrial benefits for the United States. In particular, this means increasing NSF budgets from four key directorates: 1) math and physical sciences; 2) engineering; 3) computer and information sciences and engineering (CISE); and 4) biological sciences, while permitting research budgets for the geosciences and social sciences to shrink. … This is not a call to shrink science funding, but it is a call to explicitly re-orient it in such a way that best promotes U.S. national innovation-based economic competitiveness and the jobs and economic growth that stem from this… [G]eosciences are all about knowledge creation, whereas engineering … can produce appropriable gains in the U.S. economy.11

That was 2013. Fast forward to 2015.

Notice that geoscience is not on the list of areas that boost economic growth and job creation.

In January, presidential candidate and Sen. Rand Paul authored an opinion piece titled “No, the GOP is Not at War with Science,” with Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the Committee on Science Space and Technology. They want the following:

…to redirect public research investments to the areas that boost economic growth and job creation: biology, computer science, mathematics and engineering… Congress has a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and are focused on national priorities. In the new Congress, Republicans, the party of limited government, should propose legislation to eliminate the funding of wasteful projects—and focus on smart investments instead.12

Notice that geoscience is not on the list of areas that boost economic growth and job creation.

In February, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chaired by Rep. Smith, signed a letter that says the following:

The Committee is concerned that the Administration has lost sight of the NSF’s core mission to support the physical sciences that lead to technological innovations and economic benefits. … Scientific endeavors in areas that have demonstrated return on investment for the American taxpayer deserve priority. … In FY 15, upon the Committee’s recommendation, the entire $126 million increase in the NSF Research appropriation above the request was applied to the following four priority directorates: MPS (+$41 million); ENG (+$34 million); CISE (+$28 million); and BIO (+$23 million). These priority physical science research areas will continue. The … remaining NSF accounts should be appropriately rebalanced and allocated.13

In March, presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas, asserted that earth science is not hard science. This wasn’t a campaign speech. He is the new chair of the science and space panel within the Senate commerce committee, and his declaration was made in a hearing. He was recommending a decrease in funding for earth science research at NASA. According to Sen. Cruz:

We’ve seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds going to the earth sciences program at the expense of funding for exploration and space operations, planetary sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics. … We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration, and to the innovation that has been integral to NASA.14

Opinion leaders and policymakers seem to think—incorrectly—that seismology and related fields are not worthwhile investments for society, and they are acting on this misperception

That word innovation is key to my second point about the perceived value of the earth sciences. To many policymakers, earth science is not related to innovation, and does not contribute value to our economy. Opinion leaders and policymakers seem to think—incorrectly—that seismology and related fields are not worthwhile investments for society, and they are acting on this misperception by rebalancing (or cutting) resources accordingly.

Last week, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee introduced a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act.15 Here are the opening words:

A BILL To provide for technological innovation through the prioritization of Federal investment in basic research, fundamental scientific discovery, and development to improve the competitiveness of the United States.16

Not surprisingly, it contains targeted cuts of ~8% for NSF geoscience while increasing funds for other science directorates.17

What should we do?

There is no easy solution.

The first step is recognizing the problem. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.

The second step is owning the problem. Think about your career. Have you received government support, either directly or indirectly, for your training, education, employment or research, either through funding your work or providing data? Think about it. Now, if you are brave enough, raise your hand if you ever received such support. Keep it up. Look around the room. I’m sorry to tell you, but this is your problem. Seismologists are often dependent on society to support our work. No one else is going to solve this problem for you. Like exercise, or parenting, you can’t do it by proxy. You have to spend time and energy. That’s the simple, straightforward solution.

How will you do it? I’m not going to lay out a detailed plan today. My goal is to motivate you to think about how you will help solve this problem. I encourage you to be innovative! Be creative and thoughtful. Add this problem to your agenda. There are many ways to get involved. If you haven’t already, go to a government relations workshop tomorrow or Thursday. Contact your senator or congressperson. Visit their office, or invite them to visit yours. I actually did both of those things last year, and the Vice-Chair of the House Science Space and Technology Committee accepted my invitation, came to UC Irvine, and spent two hours participating in a discussion about innovations in earthquake safety and science with other SSA members and the public.

If you are a government employee, there are appropriate restrictions on your activities, but there are abundant opportunities for each of us to make an impact in our communities, in schools, and among family and friends. Be open to discussion and willing to share your enthusiasm for seismology, and explain the benefits of investing in earthquake science. You never know who might be listening, and what they might do with that knowledge. I’ll share a recent personal experience. I’m a regular attendee at my Lutheran church. So regular that whenever I don’t show up, the pastor asks me where I was and what I was doing. Over the years, he’s heard a lot about field research on the San Andreas fault and earthquake conferences in far-flung places.

No one else is going to solve this problem for you. Like exercise, or parenting, you can’t do it by proxy.

Last month he surprised me with a phone call a few days before Easter. He had written his most important sermon of the year—and he wanted to ask me if he “got the science right.” His sermon was titled “All Shook Up.” He used analogies with earthquakes to motivate his audience of nearly 1,000 people, many of whom engage with the political process yet rarely, if ever, consult a scientist about anything. So if my pastor can preach about the importance of earthquake preparedness and seeing the big picture, rather than being focused just on the here and now, I think you can do it too.

The world is changing, and there are serious challenges for seismology. I encourage you to be the change, to make the world a better place by advancing seismology and the understanding of earthquakes for the benefit of society.18

Thank you for listening!


1 For more information about NEHRP, visit

2 James Whitcomb, NSF EAR Section Head, personal communication to Seismological Society of America, 13 March 2015.

3 Lisa Grant Ludwig, personal communications with SSA members and staff, 2013–2015.

4 Bill Leith, “Overview of the USGS Earthquake Hazards and Global Seismographic Network Programs,” presentation to the Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazard Reduction (ACEHR), Gaithersburg, MD, 9 April 2015,

5 See Leith (2015), cited above, as well as Ralph Archuleta, “Scientific Earthquake Studies Advisory Committee SESAC,” presentation to the Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazard Reduction (ACEHR), Gaithersburg, MD, 9 April 2015,

6 See Leith (2015) as well as Archuleta (2015), cited above.

7 All extended quotes in the 2015 Presidential Address by Lisa Grant Ludwig are presented verbatim, edited for brevity to highlight key points. Deleted text is denoted with ellipses.

8 Joel Achenbach, “The Age of Disbelief,” in National Geographic, cover issue titled “The War on Science,” March 2015, pp. 30–47.

9 See Leith (2015), cited above.

10 See ranking reported by ITIF on 22 January 2015,

11 Stephen J. Ezell and Robert D. Atkinson, “25 Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the 2013 America COMPETES Act,” The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, April 2013.

12 Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Lamar Smith, “No, the GOP is Not at War with Science,” Politico Magazine, 12 January 2015,

13 Lamar Smith, Chairman, and members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, “The views and estimates of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives for the Fiscal Year 2016,” letter to the Honorable Tom Price, Chairman, Committee on the Budget, 20 February 2015.

14 Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff, “Earth science is not hard science, congressional Republicans declare,” Science Insider, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 13 March 2015,

15 H.R. 1806, introduced 15 April 2015, by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). See Committee on Science, Space, and Technology press release

16 From the text of the bill, introduced 15 April 2015, which is available at

17 Comparison of COMPETES (15 April 2015 version) with other fiscal years: −9.2% compared to FY14 enacted; −8.0% compared to FY15 Estimate; −12.1% compared to FY16 request.

18 This is the core purpose of SSA, as outlined in our strategic plan, found at