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Wallace: I retired in 1987 a few days short of age 71, after over 40 years service.

Scott: For the record, at this point would you summarize your working history with USGS?

Wallace: I started with the USGS in May 1942, and worked fulltime until the summer of 1946, when I moved to teach at Washington State College in Pullman. I taught there until the summer of 1951, when I returned to USGS full time. During the years of teaching, I believe I kept a status of "when actually employed" (WAE), although it may have lapsed for a few months. Also I actively worked for USGS during summers, from 1943 until I rejoined the Survey fulltime in 1951.

In short, I may have been at USGS for 53 years, with five years of dual service at Washington State and the Survey. Civil Service, however, would credit me with only a little less than 42 years for annuity calculations (cheating me out of a couple of thousand dollars per year).

Scott: When you retired, did you immediately become "Emeritus"?

Wallace: No, at the time I retired an "Emeritus" program had not been established formally, but has been since.

Scott: Say a word or two more about the "Emeritus" designation.

Wallace: I am called both a "volunteer" and a "Scientist Emeritus" or a "Geologist Emeritus." Fortunately, the USGS is reinforcing the Scientist Emeritus program. I do enjoy the association with my colleagues here at the USGS, and at age 79 I seem to be able to continue in my happy state for a few more months at least. The USGS has been the best of all places to work.

On retiring in 1987, I still had many research papers based on foreign travel and work in the Basin and Range to finish, and we had long talked about an overview paper on the San Andreas fault. For the first few years of retirement, I operated on a part-time, partial-pay basis, but the formal retirement status gave me a chance to be more flexible in meshing personal matters and work for the USGS. John Filson, then Office Chief, as well as former Office Chiefs, Bob Hamilton, and Rob Wesson were kind enough to encourage me to stay on.

Volume on the San Andreas Fault System

Scott: You mentioned the volume on the San Andreas fault. It is a handsome job of publishing and seems very comprehensive. Would you say just a few more words characterizing the volume, how it was done and what you tried to accomplish with it?

Wallace: Thank you, I will. The San Andreas fault had received such world-wide recognition that visiting scientists came to our office seeking a trip along the fault and an overview statement about it. And as I mentioned, for years we had talked about doing an overview paper about it. Several people had pointed to me as the one to prepare such an overview paper. I knew that I could not do it alone, however, because it involved so many specialties in geology and geophysics. But in retirement I felt I could take the time to ramrod a cooperative effort.

Aided by Joe Ziony and Bob Brown, we developed a plan and a team of USGS authors to tackle the job. I wanted USGS people for two reasons: expertise was here in abundance, and I would not have to arm-wrestle people at a distance to get them to submit their chapters in a timely way. The Professional Paper (perhaps better referred to as the book) ended up with ten chapters by 14 authors, 283 pages and abundant photos, maps, and diagrams. The volume was intended to reach primarily a fairly well-informed earth-science audience, but also a general-science and lay audience. It has enjoyed rather wide circulation, including adoption as a text or reference in many classes.

I view the book as a brief review of a very complex earth-science problem. In the preface I observe: "This volume represents but a small punctuation mark in the early stage of our understanding of the San Andreas fault system ... Most of the story has yet to be learned."

Thanks to some priorities set by Dallas Peck, USGS Director, we had a colorful USGS Professional Paper printed in 1990. I am happy with the product. (Wallace, R.E., (ed.), The San Andreas Fault System, California. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1515, 1990.)

Scott: Do you think of any other elements that have influenced the evolution of the earthquake hazard reduction program?

Wallace: The story I have told has been very selective and incomplete. I apologize for important omissions of people and institutions that had major influences. Nor can I begin to paint a story of the constant and chameleon-like changes inherent in the flow of people and activities through a program like this. I can identify periods of five to ten years in which the same names appear on one advisory panel after another. Then ten years later, the whole cadre of names has changed, preferred agenda change, and institutions disappeared and new ones have been created. Individuals retire or change jobs - some much-needed individuals are inconsiderate enough to die. The fact of constant change cannot be overemphasized.

Closing Observations

Scott: We are nearing the end of a very fruitful set of oral history interviews. Before you end, are there any further observations that you would like to mention from your half-century of experience in USGS?

Consensus and Conflict

Wallace: One thing I would emphasize is the central nature of the processes of consensus-building. Consensus-building is what it is called, but "consensus" is really too benign a word for the process I observed and in which I participated. It often involved a real struggle, sometimes a fierce struggle, over the distribution of money to support one program element or another. That really cannot be avoided, so the battles are inevitable.

Scott: Yes, that is a universal feature of life in a complex world. You see it in the public and private sectors, and among practitioners and researchers. Sometimes it seems rather pronounced in the worlds of academia and research. I guess the main hope is to conduct the struggle with a degree of fair play and civility. But that is hard to do, especially when people see reputations or maybe even careers as being at stake.

Wallace: The personal factor is important. Individuals ultimately determine outcomes, working through their personalities, and with their strengths, weaknesses, insights and persuasiveness. Understandably the process can be abrasive and may appears messy, disorderly and contentious. Strong personalities emerge now and then to create partial order within the disorder, at least for a time. Sometimes a welcome sense of community prevails and consensus seems to flower, especially when funds are adequate for the would-be players of the moment. But funds always attract additional players, and new power struggles ensue.

Those in the heat of battle sometimes forget that honest differences of opinion are legitimate. Too often, such battles can turn into destructive, personal vendettas. On the other hand, some elements of tension are always healthy for a dynamic intellectual environment. But there are never enough funds to carry all programs along at the speed every advocate hopes for.

We have seen major disciplines contending for influence in the earthquake program, including earth sciences, engineering, emergency response planners, social sciences, and public administration. Also there are analogous contests among subdisciplines within the major disciplines. Similarly, various agencies and organizations have been fighting for roles and funds.

A Few Generic Lessons

Wallace: I can close by summarizing some simple generic lessons I have gleaned from my own experience as set forth in these memoirs. National agendas have to be hammered out over time with a lot of effort. They are created by dedicated people who must expend enormous amounts of energy. While such agendas are not necessarily long-lived, they do seem to thrive if the principal individuals continue to be personally dedicated and energetic. On the other hand, competing national priorities can overwhelm smaller efforts such as the earthquake program. Also, priorities are transformed in wartime, and in peacetime they shift as economic factors wax and wane.

It is a truism in the earthquake field that each disastrous earthquake creates a temporary unity of purpose and a renewed determination throughout the community of specialists to seek better means of disaster reduction. Damaging earthquakes also generate a vivid sense of urgency for action within the public.

Scott: Yes, and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it becomes easier to get a consensus on action to help forestall or reduce similar future disasters, and to make significant progress on earthquake disaster programs.

Some Darkening Shadows: Changing Concepts of Government

Wallace: As these words are written, a major issue concerns the very role of the federal government itself. For a time, some members of Congress targeted the USGS for abolition. "Reinventing government" has become a popular phrase. An antagonism toward all government seems to pervade some parts of society, and anti-tax sentiments flourish. In such a climate, support of science is being challenged daily.

Conclusion: A Great Half Century Ended

Wallace: The joyful and satisfying memories of a great half century will be with me forever. But I also feel an overwhelming sadness at no longer being a fully active and effective investigator, explorer, and participant in the earthquake hazard reduction program, and other socially and scientifically important activities of that "improbable bureaucracy"--the USGS.

Robert E. Wallace - "EARTHQUAKES, MINERALS AND ME" - USGS Open-File Report 96-260

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