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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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