Robert L. Wesson

Geologic Hazards Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

2017 Edward A. Flinn III Award Winner

Robert L. Wesson received the 2017 Edward A. Flinn III Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 13 December 2017 in New Orleans, La. The award honors an “individual or small group who personifies the Union’s motto ‘unselfish cooperation in research’ through their facilitating, coordinating, and implementing activities.”


Throughout his career at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Rob Wesson’s leadership of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) expanded the scope and impact of earthquake hazards research, in partnership with academic institutions, governments, and researchers around the world. He played keys roles in launching and maintaining NEHRP, in developing international cooperation in earthquake research, and in creating a supportive environment that fostered more than two generations of U.S. earthquake scientists.

As a principal coauthor of the -Newmark–Stever Report, Earthquake Prediction and Hazards Mitigation Options for USGS and NSF Programs, he helped bring the U.S. earthquake program into existence and later helped develop the implementation plan of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. As chief of the Office of Earthquake Studies, he directed NEHRP in its infancy, building coalitions and bridges between government agencies and between government and academic researchers, including a key role in establishing the Southern California Earthquake Center. Rob understood the importance of fully engaging the academic community in NEHRP. Under his leadership, the USGS shaped its extramural research program to allow university scientists working on critical problems to become full partners in NEHRP. This partnership remains today as a cornerstone of NEHRP.

Rob Wesson has the highest appreciation for the value of solid science but is always careful to ensure that individual and institutional engagement is not ignored. In the early 1970s, he seized on the thawing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union to conduct joint seismological fieldwork in Soviet Tajikistan (with U.S. government seismometers and radios). By gaining the trust and respect of the leading Soviet scientists, he helped open a door in the Iron Curtain for decades of fruitful collaboration between American and Russian scientists.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, NEHRP was under increasing fiscal pressure, as the growth envisioned in the -Newmark–Stever Report never happened. Rob used this destructive event to make compelling arguments for expansion of NEHRP, and he secured a major increase in the congressional appropriation that continues to this day.

Rob Wesson’s ability to stimulate the U.S. research community, engage with international partners, and implement a complex and societally important program lies at the crossroads between research, policy, and practice and makes him a fitting recipient of the Flinn Award.

—Bill Ellsworth, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.


Thanks so much to Bill Ellsworth and colleagues for nominating me for the Flinn Award and to AGU for granting it. I am tickled. I got to know Ted Flinn long ago when he recruited me for a job. As I left grad school in 1970 to join the USGS, competition among institutions seemed a dominant theme in Earth science. Today, while this competition remains strong and healthy, our science is promoted and facilitated by a variety of collaborative structures. I am proud to have contributed. Bob Hamilton lured me to Reston in 1976. Immediately, I joined him in working on the -Newmark–Stever report and the struggle for a significant funding increase for earthquake science and engineering. Bob had overseen the consolidation of the former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs into the USGS and engineered the beginning of USGS collaboration with university researchers. The -Newmark–Stever process and the resulting funds enhanced collaboration among the USGS and the National Science Foundation; government, universities, and the private sector; and engineers and Earth and social scientists. This same widely shared vision led to the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. After contributing to the drafting of the act and an implementation plan prepared by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and fighting the first battles to maintain the funds, I left the earthquake program for the director’s office at the USGS, just in time for the eruption of Mount St. Helens, then went back to OSTP for another earthquake report. After a brief respite in research, I returned to the management of the USGS earthquake and volcano programs in 1988, at what became a very busy time for the travails of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions but also for opportunities to increase support for research and mitigation actions. Building and maintaining support for significant research programs need to be viewed as a political process in that they require identifying and meeting the needs of a variety of constituencies with differing, and often conflicting, priorities—a commonly uncertain and stressful undertaking. Increased support for regional efforts, including the Southern California Earthquake Center and Alaska Volcano Observatory, grew from that time. I have felt the support of many people. Especially deserving note are Bob Hamilton, Vince Mc-Kelvey, Dallas Peck, Bill Menard, Doyle Frederick, Frank Press, Lynn Sykes, Kei Aki, Phil Smith, John Filson, Randy Updike, Virgil Frizzell, Art Frankel, Jill McCarthy, but many, many others. My deepest thanks to all.

—Robert L. Wesson, Geologic Hazards Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, Colo.