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A local resident inspects a fissure in the earth after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake near Ridgecrest, California, in July.

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NSF shakes up its earthquake research

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is shifting the foundations of its earthquake research, forcing a longtime center to compete for its continued existence while mandating that a single contractor, rather than two, manage its two large facilities for studying Earth’s shape and vibration. The agency announced the changes late last week in a meeting of its geoscience advisory committee at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For 3 decades, NSF has supported—without competition—the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, including a $9 million award covering 2017 to 2022. SCEC started as one of the agency’s science and technology centers in 1991. Funding for such centers typically expires after a set period, but SCEC was so successful that NSF, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, kept it alive for several decades. However, it is now time to see whether research on fundamental earthquake processes could be better served by another center—or multiple centers, said Margaret Benoit, an NSF program director for earth science, at the 18 October meeting.

The news came as a surprise when NSF broke it recently, says Greg Beroza, a seismologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and SCEC co-director. “But it’s not dire news. In a way, I kind of welcome it.” The competition will give SCEC the incentive to reimagine the full scope of what the earthquake center can be, and that can only be for the best, he says. NSF expects to hold the competition next year, Benoit said.

Similarly, NSF will require that its two large facilities for studying the deep Earth, the Seismological Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience (SAGE) and the Geodetic Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience (GAGE), be run by a single contractor in the future. Each is now run by a different nonprofit university consortia: SAGE, which includes a large network of seismometers of all types, is under a $93 million award to the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Washington, D.C.; GAGE, which includes a host of GPS stations and similar instruments, is under a $71 million award to UNAVCO Inc. in Boulder, Colorado. Both contracts expire in 2023.

The move is a simple bid to save money and cut management positions, Benoit said at the meeting. “We can streamline management and oversight and still provide strong support to the community.” It’s been some time coming, adds IRIS President Robert Detrick, who will retire next year. The two nonprofits have been in talks on their future and are now investigating a potential merger, he says. “It looks like the most viable option.”

The cost-trimming moves come as NSF’s earth sciences division readies itself for its next big scientific efforts. The ambitious EarthScope program, which spread a portable array of seismometers all across the United States, has now ended; next year, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will recommend a path forward for the division. The SAGE and GAGE merger came directly out of talks preparing for that report, Benoit said.