From the Directors: Current and future research collaborations

Dear SCEC Community,

This year has started with a reminder of the gravity of the threat posed by earthquakes to society. In early January a number of SCEC researchers joined colleagues from Japan and other countries at the Hokudan Symposium in Awaji Japan to commemorate the anniversary of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. That Mw=6.9 earthquake killed over 6000 people, left about 300,000 people homeless, and caused direct economic losses in excess of $100 billion. The participants shared information about what has been learned in 25 years, and what additional research is needed.

The Board of Directors has been busy in January-February with several activities, including updating the bylaws to reflect changes in Center management structure in the last few years and strengthening the SCEC code of conduct. The Science Planning Committee (PC) also has been hard at work, meeting in late January to review over 140 proposals submitted to the SCEC research program for the coming year. The proposals cover a very wide range of topics, with additional emphasis this year on studies related to the 2019 Ridgecrest earthquake sequence. Throughout its history, SCEC has relied on base funding from NSF and USGS. Additional funding for the SCEC research program has been provided by PG&E, the Keck Foundation, the California Earthquake Authority, and more recently NASA and DOE. Given the funding constraints that NSF and USGS operate under, and the ambitious plans we have for the Center, it is essential to develop increasingly diverse funding streams.

We would like to thank the SCEC Science PC for their intense and thoughtful construction of the 2020 collaboration plan. Each proposal submitted to SCEC is reviewed by at least 5 PC members to gauge its potential for meeting the goals of the SCEC5 collaboration. In January, all proposals are discussed at an in-person meeting of PC members, with important input from members of the (non-voting) USGS Joint Planning Committee and the SCEC Director. Throughout this process, they get support from the remarkable efforts of the SCEC staff - particularly Tran Huynh, Deborah Gormley, and Edric Pauk. During the in-person meeting the PC determines which projects to recommend for funding to meet SCEC goals while maintaining a balanced budget. The work is intense, but the atmosphere is highly collegial, and the selfless dedication of those involved is something to behold. We owe them all our thanks for their hard work on SCEC’s behalf. 

In early February a proposal on “Building the Southern California Integrated Modeling Framework for Geodynamic and Seismic Hazard Analysis” was submitted to NSF. This 4-year project with 4 investigators and ten listed collaborators aims to integrate the available geological and geophysical knowledge on tectonic structures and processes in SoCal, synthesized in the different SCEC community models, into a Southern California Integrated Modeling Framework (SCIMF). Simulations with the developed SCIMF can suggest new important features, including large potential zones of strain/stress concentration, not well represented in the current models, which may become targets for future data analyses, and can improve the constraints on quantities represented in individual models. The project includes significant Education and Outreach components.

Since last September, when NSF-EAR announced plans for an open competition of one or more earthquake research centers following SCEC5, many of you reached out to provide feedback and expressed eagerness to contribute to the future of SCEC. On January 17 NSF issued the anticipated Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) requesting input on formulating the solicitation for Future Research Center(s) to Coordinate Research in Fundamental Earthquake Processes. SCEC is well-positioned to respond to NSF’s call. Various groups have begun exploring how we may broaden and deepen our future activities, building on the multi-disciplinary data collection efforts, integration of observations and theory in a system science approach, estimates of seismic hazard with ever-increasing realism, and broad dissemination of knowledge that have been hallmarks of SCEC activities.

SCEC’s long-term commitment to understanding the faults in our natural laboratory facilitated many discoveries, and the integrative approach adopted by SCEC from the start (referred to early on as “the master model”) led to pioneering results that propelled earthquake science forward. In the process, SCEC developed a highly effective and unique mode of collaboration to engage a large number of researchers in difficult problems. The natural laboratory of the next earthquake center may be enlarged to encompass the entire San Andreas system both onshore and offshore. Research activities in the next center may have increased focused on detailed near-field studies that benefit from excellent access to many components of the San Andreas system and have high potential for providing fundamental new knowledge. A number of groups have started to articulate possible initiatives on these and other topics for the next earthquake center in white papers. We encourage all of you to share your experiences and ideas for a future earthquake center by providing input to NSF by the April 1 deadline.

Since 2002, SCEC has been funded in five-year phases. The usual mode of funding by federal agencies is to have dollar amounts preconfigured to a set of institutions and individual investigators determined when the proposal is written. That’s not how SCEC has operated. To meet our goals of sustaining a collaboration that is both agile and open, SCEC developed a mode of operation that is not typical of other research collaborations.

The Science Planning Committee meets annually to develop a collaboration plan that is open to all interested investigators, whether or not they are at a core institution. The primary criterion for funding is that the proposed project is deemed by the PC to have potential to make a useful contribution to SCEC goals.

The organizational structure and the membership of the PC has repeatedly evolved to provide fresh perspectives and meet the changing needs of SCEC. 

Technical Activity Groups (TAGs) and Special Fault Study Areas are designed to be of finite-duration and to bring intense focus on pressing issues and key research targets. 

Special projects (additional proposals beyond the base program) allow us to emphasize and to pursue particular opportunities as they arise.

Through these mechanisms SCEC has retained the flexibility to adapt to new opportunities and new ideas, and our management model has been emulated in research centers in New Zealand, Taiwan, and China. Because our center management is novel, we will have to make a very strong case for it to continue and will evolve to an extent that it is healthy for the long-term good of the Center. We look at the open competition for the next earthquake research centers as opportunities to rethink the scope of our research, and how we manage a large vibrant, agile collaboration that can adapt to new advances. 

Wishing everyone healthy and productive coming months,

Yehuda Ben-Zion, SCEC Director
Gregory Beroza, SCEC Co-Director