David Simpson

2012 Waldo E. Smith Medal (INACTIVE) Winner


David Simpson was awarded the 2012 Waldo E. Smith Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 5 December 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “extraordinary service to geophysics.”



Modern global earthquake monitoring, enabled by developments in seismometry and partnerships among academic and government institutions, is a fundamental component of international geoscience infrastructure. In addition to supporting fundamental research, monitoring provides the essential information needed to improve our preparation for and response to earthquake disasters. For U.S. seismologists and their collaborators, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) has been the backbone organization supporting the acquisition and management of data underpinning seismological research, education, and applications. The individual most responsible for IRIS’s record of success is David Simpson, who has served as its President since 1991.


After receiving his advanced degrees from Dalhousie and the Australian National University, David began his academic career at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. At Lamont, he conducted research on induced seismicity and satellite remote sensing. His move to the presidency of IRIS was meant to be temporary, but he was prevailed upon to stay.


David personifies the qualities celebrated by the Smith Medal. His imprint on geophysics is evident in the keen dependence of Earth scientists on IRIS facilities, and the precision with which those facilities are managed. The IRIS model of open governance, agency and international partnerships, technical development, and efficient management and operations is held by many to be the ideal blueprint for shared scientific facilities. The IRIS consortium, comprising virtually all of the U.S. academic institutions engaged in seismological research as well as a multitude of government and international partners, is itself the archetype for scientific community building and engagement. But the success of all of this is built on the confidence that there is a good captain at the helm, that there is aggressive stewardship of the principles of operational excellence and free exchange of data, and that there is a leader that can represent the broadest interests of the community. David embodies all of this, and more.


Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the rapid growth in the number of institutions with leading programs in seismology, and the impact IRIS facilities have had on early-career seismologists. It is now possible to be at any institution and have access to earthquake data in near real time, as well as to the most sophisticated instrumentation for targeted field experiments. Additionally, young scientists find that the technical barriers to data acquisition have been so lowered as to be essentially irrelevant to their productivity. Now, a lifetime of data is available for analysis.


Given the expansion and vitality of observational seismology enabled by IRIS, one might expect a certain satisfaction about the state of seismological data acquisition. Seismologists certainly are a happy bunch. But it is clear that the coherence of the IRIS consortium empowers young and old with the tools to think big. EarthScope is but one example. The recent Cascadia Initiative is another. These are the results of responsive leadership and discriminating judgment. David Simpson is a fitting reminder of why the AGU celebrates “extraordinary service to geophysics” with the Smith Medal.


–Arthur Lerner-Lam, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, New York



It is a great honor to accept the Waldo E. Smith medal. I do so in the name of many and in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that lie at the core of the AGU and the IRIS Consortium.


The geosciences differ in many fundamental ways from other branches of the physical sciences. Ours is a place-based, global and international science that relies on exploration and observations in all parts of the world. The vision of the founders of IRIS, and the sustained support from the National Science Foundation, have been deeply rooted in a conviction that, provided with resources, driven by science and given responsibility, the academic research community can set priorities and define the pathways to develop and sustain the observational facilities that they require to advance their scientific goals.


It has been a true joy to be involved with IRIS and watch it grow over the past 25 years. The Consortium has evolved and been constantly renewed by an engaged and stimulating community of scientists who have given freely of their time and talents to help guide the facilities that IRIS develops and maintains. Key to the success of this community venture has been a deep commitment to free and open data exchange, shared and multi-use resources, high quality standards, within a framework of community governance, international collaboration, and multi-agency support.


To AGU and those who nominated me, I express my deep and humble thanks for the honor of receiving the Smith Medal. To my friends, mentors, colleagues and family, I extend my heartfelt appreciation for a lifetime of support and encouragement. To the many who have guided IRIS through its development as a Consortium, we are all indebted for your vision and insightful guidance. To the talented and dedicated staff at IRIS and our partner organizations, I extend, on behalf of a grateful global community of scientists, sincere appreciation for your efforts in transforming NSF’s financial support into first class global resources for our science.


It is my sincere hope that, in the ever-increasing technological, fiscal, and political complexities of our modern world, a culture of free and open sharing of the highest quality data, resources and ideas, as espoused by IRIS and led and governed by the Earth science community, will continue to thrive and enrich the contributions that our scientists have to offer to the world.


–David Simpson, IRIS Consortium, Washington, D. C.