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NSF & Congress


Dr. Priscilla P. Nelson
Division Director for Civil and Mechanical Systems
Directorate for Engineering
National Science Foundation

Before the Subcommittee on
Research House Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives
March 21, 2001


Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Subcommittee:

I appreciate the opportunity to be here today with the Subcommittee to discuss the programs at NSF that support the development of new science and engineering knowledge, and that enable U.S. researchers to acquire information following extreme events including the recent Nisqually earthquake. Among other functions, NSF is involved in enabling knowledge creation and the education of future professionals, activities which make possible effective earthquake hazard mitigation in the nation.

NSF is privileged to serve as one of the principal agencies in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), and many NSF activities are carried out with close coordination and collaboration with our NEHRP sister agencies: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Our participation in NEHRP is consistent with our policy of integrating NSF's activities with those of other agencies when it will facilitate the achievement of national goals, which in the case of NEHRP involves the goals of reducing deaths, injuries and property damage and other economic losses caused by earthquakes. We are confident that NEHRP -- in collaboration with other Federal agencies, local and state governments, and private sector organizations throughout the country -- will continue to take crucial steps toward meeting this challenge in the years to come.

I will initially put the role of NSF in perspective by saying a few words about the broader NSF mission. Then I will discuss the specific focus of NSF-supported reconnaissance activities following the Nisqually earthquake.

The NSF Mission

In recent years, we have seen an acceleration in the rate of change in society and the world at large. In this era of rapid change, in which science and technology play an increasingly central role, NSF has remained steadfast in pursuit of its mission. That mission is to support science and engineering research and education for the advancement of the nation's well being, and NSF accomplishes this mission by investments in people, ideas and tools that build the nation's research and education infrastructure.

At NSF, we believe that federally funded research should have economic and social benefits for society, as well as represent excellence in science and engineering. We also see the necessity for and benefits from integrating research and education, which can most effectively be done at academic institutions.

NSF makes its investments in science and engineering with the recognition that there is a need to maintain excellence across the frontiers of scientific and engineering disciplines. In order to significantly enhance the return on such investments, we actively seek partnerships with other Federal agencies as well as other entities.

Finally, NSF places significant emphasis on the diffusion of knowledge and technological innovations that are relevant to such national goals as education, environmental sustainability, creation of a robust information technology infrastructure, and the development of reliable and safe civil infrastructure systems. This requires an appreciation of a broad range of research and educational contexts, including the recognition that research centers, consortia, and individual investigator projects all contribute to the advancement of needed scientific and engineering knowledge.

Role of NSF in NEHRP

NSF supports research and educational activities in many disciplines, and this is reflected in the role we fulfill under NEHRP. Our role complements the responsibilities assigned to our principal partners in the program: FEMA, NIST and USGS. NSF is involved in continuing strategic planning with the other NEHRP agencies in order to further interagency coordination and integration. NSF is also a frequent collaborator with the other NEHRP agencies. This collaboration includes co-funding research, educational and outreach activities.

NEHRP authorization legislation calls for NSF to support studies in the earth sciences, earthquake engineering, and the social sciences. Since an integrated body of knowledge is needed to understand earthquake problems and to develop effective solutions for dealing with them, such as innovative building designs and control technologies, NSF encourages cross-disciplinary research. The NSF-supported earthquake centers, which I will discuss later, provide one of the most useful institutional arrangements for conducting complex holistic research.

NSF's Earthquake-Related Research and Educational Activities

Earthquake-related research and educational activities are supported at NSF in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Education and Human Resources, Engineering, Geosciences, and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorates. The research areas include seismology and fault processes, earthquake engineering and social science research related to earthquake hazard mitigation, preparedness and post-earthquake recovery. Significant progress continues to be made in these programs in understanding plate tectonics and earthquake processes, geotechnical and structural engineering, tsunamis. and the social and economic aspects of earthquake hazard mitigation.

NSF supports numerous individual investigator and small group projects, two university consortia, and four earthquake centers that advance NEHRP goals. Other NEHRP-related NSF activities include programs involving earthquake research facilities, post-earthquake investigations, international cooperation, and information dissemination.

Incorporated Research Institutes in Seismology (IRIS)

NSF supports the Incorporated Research Institutes in Seismology (IRIS) consortium in order to provide the seismographic facilities necessary to monitor earthquakes worldwide, study the tectonic structure of active seismic zones, and provide emergency seismographic response to aftershock zones of major earthquakes.

IRIS' Global Seismographic Network (GSN), operated in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, is the primary means of locating, in near-real time, seismic events around the world to provide emergency and policy planners information with which decisions on responses can be made. The GSN is nearly complete on land with over 136 stations worldwide, most of which are accessed in near-real time, and all of which are available over the Internet through the IRIS Data Management Center. The Data Management Center now stores over 10 terabytes of data and is growing at a rate of 3 terabytes per year. Tests are now being conducted on the deep ocean floor to determine the best technology with which to instrument the vast oceanic areas of the Earth.

IRIS maintains a ready array of advanced, portable seismic systems for rapid deployment in the aftershock region of major earthquakes, and this array was deployed to the Nisqually earthquake region. A separate dedicated portable array is also used to map the tectonic structure of active seismic regions. With knowledge of the tectonic structure, scientists can better understand the geometry of potential earthquake rupture zones and compute their associated destructive strong motions, especially close to the earthquake source.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

The Global Positioning System (GPS) was initially developed by the Department of Defense in order to provide position accuracies of a few meters. However, the differential use of GPS with two or more receiving systems can achieve sub-centimeter accuracy and this fact has revolutionized the science of earthquake tectonics. The distortion of the earth's surface is an essential measure of the potential for earthquakes in a given region. This distortion can be monitored with GPS and other space-based positioning systems. NSF supports facilities that use GPS to monitor crustal distortion in both campaign and fixed-network modes.

The University Navstar Consortium (UNAVCO), supported by NSF in partnership with NASA, was formed to support scientific campaigns that monitor crustal distortion in active tectonic areas. UNAVCO provides instrumentation, training and logistics support to individual scientists who have been funded to study specific tectonic areas throughout the world.

The Southern California Integrated GPS Network (SCIGN) is the most ambitious U.S. GPS fixed-network to date and is under construction with support of NSF in partnership with NASA, the USGS, and the Keck Foundation. SCIGN, now almost one-half complete, will consist of 250 fixed GPS stations in southern California. It will be linked with less dense networks in Nevada, northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. The SCIGN data is available on the Internet in near-real time, and has already provided significant new discoveries and constraints on our ideas of the tectonics of the San Andreas Fault plate-boundary zone.

Research Centers

NSF established the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) in 1991 as a Science and Technology Center for the purpose of promoting and integrating science related to earthquake hazard estimation and reduction in the southern California region. The USGS is a partner in SCEC, which also receives support from, the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, County of Los Angeles, industry and private foundations. Such broad funding is an example of how NEHRP agencies leverage funds and indicates that SCEC truly is seen as an activity that cuts across the concerns of the NEHRP program. SCEC is a consortium of institutions and is administered through the University of Southern California. It continues to contribute significantly to a new understanding of the earthquake hazard in southern California by combining insights from seismicity, new geodetic technology, new geologic discoveries, and local site conditions in an innovative framework of earthquake hazard evaluation. Recent examples of SCEC findings include a) the discovery that magnitude 7 earthquakes have occurred on at least one local thrust fault in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, b) a determination that one major thrust fault discovered beneath the region is currently inactive, and c) a suggestion that north-south strain across the Los Angeles region may be partially accommodated by east-west crustal extension. SCEC advances are being effectively communicated to professionals, students and the public through a very active education and outreach program.

NSF funded three new earthquake engineering research centers (EERCs) in October 1997. Representing a new generation of such institutions, these recently funded EERCs build on the experience of the first such center that was funded by NSF in 1986, the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (NCEER).

Each EERC is a consortium of 7 to 18 academic institutions involved in multidisciplinary team research, educational and outreach activities. With its administrative headquarters at the University of California at Berkeley, the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) focuses on earthquake problems in areas west of the Rocky Mountains and emphasizes performance-based design in its research and educational programs. The Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE) is headquartered at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and focuses on hazards in the Central and Eastern U.S. and emphasizes research related to critical building and transportation facilities. The Multi-disciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), which is the successor to NCEER, has its headquarters at the State University of New York at Buffalo and emphasizes research related to advanced technologies for soils, structures, and lifelines that are applicable to earthquake problems throughout the U.S.

The EERCs are combining research across the disciplines of the earth sciences, architecture, earthquake engineering, and the social sciences. And in order to meet the need for future professionals and assure continuing U.S. leadership in the field, they are educating hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in the latest analytical, computational and experimental techniques. Additionally, even though it is early in their tenure, the EERCs have established major partnerships with industry, state government agencies, the other NEHRPO agencies and other federal agencies (e.g., FHWA), and foreign research organizations, which should also help advance earthquake hazard reduction in the Nation in the years ahead.

The three EERCs have developed significant collaborative efforts in their research and educational programs, and coordinate their seismic hazard research with SCEC.

Post-Earthquake Investigations

Actual earthquake events provide a wealth of knowledge relevant to earthquake hazard mitigation. Areas struck by such events represent natural full-scale laboratories, offering unusual opportunities to learn vital lessons about earthquake impacts on the natural and built environment and to test models and techniques derived from analytical, computational and experimental studies. For this reason, NSF continues to support post-disaster investigations, often in conjunction with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), the Earthquake Engineering Research Centers, and faculty at local universities and colleges. The post-earthquake investigations involve quick-response teams of researchers visiting impacted sites to collect perishable information that remains available only up to the time that full-scale community restoration and reconstruction commence. The events investigated with NSF support in the recent past include the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, the January 2001 earthquake in India, and the Nisqually earthquake south of Seattle on February 28, 2001.

Nisqually reconnaissance efforts have included many activities and involved many organizations, including:

  • Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) through the NSF-funded "Learning from Earthquakes" (LFE) project
  • The University of Washington
  • Washington State University
  • NSF Earthquake Engineering Research Centers (EERCs)
    • PEER (Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research) Center
    • MAE (Mid America Earthquake) Center
    • MCEER (Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research)
  • Southern California Earthquake Center
  • University of California, San Diego
  • Utah State University
  • Central Washington University
  • University of Arizona
  • CUREE (Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering)
  • The City of Seattle
  • The City of Tacoma
  • Washington State Department of Natural Resources
  • Washington State Department of Transportation
  • United States Geological Survey
  • FEMA

The main coordination was established by a local team chartered by EERI under the LFE project and headed by faculty from the University of Washington. This team established main tasking for reconnaissance efforts by self-assignment with direct involvement of researchers from the University of Washington, PEER and several of the organizations listed above. Other teams were formed for particular focus responsibilities, including personnel from the MAE and MCEER EERCs. The local team arranged for public briefings on the University of Washington campus March 1, 2, and 3. These were well attended by researchers, the public, and the media. FEMA supplied support for GIS data entry and management, and the USGS gave access to strong motion earthquake equipment and supplied Internet expertise to bring a coordinated web site on line as soon as possible. This web site came on line as an information clearinghouse very shortly after the Nisqually event []. The support from FEMA and USGS will continue for several weeks more as reconnaissance activities wind down.

The reconnaissance activity following Nisqually has greatly benefited from the participation of university-based engineers experienced in observation through reconnaissance activities for previous recent earthquakes - primarily funded through NSF and the Learning from Earthquakes grant to EERI. In addition, members of local area engineering practice were out in force, and coordinated with the university-led reconnaissance teams but had the prime focus of completing work for clients. International reconnaissance teams from New Zealand (the Building Research Association) and Japan (Tokyo Institute of Technology) have also been on site and contribute to the data repository.

The Nisqually reconnaissance teams have produced preliminary reports, and these will be developed into a comprehensive assessment by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute through its "Learning from Earthquakes" project, which is funded by NSF. The focus of this assessment will be on the geotechnical aspects of the event, including soil characteristics and strong ground motion features; structural aspects, including damage to various types of structures and focusing on the preponderance of nonstructural damage; the performance of lifelines, including electric, water and telecommunications systems; and socioeconomic aspects, including business interruptions and emergency response. A preliminary report is available on the Web.

Based on the observations from the reconnaissance, preliminary conclusions include:

  • Nonstructural damage was the major impact affecting costs and occupancy.
  • Other than unreinforced masonry buildings on poor soil, few buildings sustained significant damage.
  • Local soil conditions and amplifications of ground motions were important in causing variations in performance - including soil liquefaction, lateral spreading, and landslides.
  • Lifelines apparently performed well, but final information on pipeline breaks will be slow to come in.
  • Regarding critical facilities -
    • airports: there was damage at SeaTac Airport (e.g., the control tower) and at King County (Boeing) airfield (building and runway damage)
    • hospitals: most experienced nonstructural damage which will be costly nonetheless, but there were relatively few injuries, so the health services were not stressed by the Nisqually event.

Although full consideration of research opportunities that follow from the Nisqually earthquake will require additional time, some focus areas of importance have already been identified:

  • Nisqually presents a unique opportunity to assemble a database on direct and indirect losses - which will permit unambiguous evaluation of economic impact of nonstructural damage, disruption to the business of government, and business interruptions. In the case of Nisqually, these losses can be determined separated from the costs of severe structural impacts. This will be of great benefit for calibration of loss estimation models.
  • Recent investments in structural retrofit, soil improvement, and application of new technology in the Seattle area can be evaluated to provide input for performance and repair cost models.
  • Social science research is needed to evaluate the implications of a non-catastrophic event for the public, and to study changes in decision making and in risk perception caused by the Nisqually quake.

For engineering, recent focus is on new methodologies for design, most importantly involving the concept of Performance Based Earthquake Engineering (PBEE). In PBEE, analytical and experimental models are used to develop relationships between measures of earthquake shaking and resulting damage. These relationships, like the fragility curve shown here, are used to explicitly define costs and risks.

In the past, engineering research has focused on catastrophic collapse of structures, and recent highly damaging quakes have provided field observations that can be used to validate these models for structural failure.

In Performance Based Engineering, however, engineers seek information on how to design for performance levels other than catastrophic failure and complete loss of functionality. This means fully defining the fragility curve. This approach allows explicit definition of costs and risks for any level of performance. The Nisqually quake will provide access to exactly this kind of knowledge needed in PBEE design.

Earthquake Research

NSF funds earthquake-related research projects conducted at colleges and universities in nearly every state. These projects are carried out by faculty in geosciences, engineering, socio-economics and other areas. Many of these projects are interdisciplinary and integrate contributions from several principal investigators. Projects are often completed with participation on undergraduate and graduate students, and also with involvement of K-12 teachers as a recently added program at NSF. The integration of research and education is inherent in earthquake research funding at NSF.

As indicated by this testimony, earthquakes are a global hazard. For this reason, many countries find collaborative research and the sharing of information essential in meeting this challenge; the U.S. is no exception. Similar to the other NEHRP agencies, NSF has a long history of cooperating with other countries -- such as China, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and Turkey -- facing similar seismic risks. Let me briefly mention some recent developments with regards to NSF's efforts to enable U.S. earthquake researchers to collaborate with their counterparts.

In 1993, the US/Japan Common Agenda for Cooperation in Global Perspective was established to facilitate cooperation in addressing pressing global problems, including natural hazards. In 1998, a new joint earthquake research program, called the US/Japan Cooperative Research in Urban Earthquake Disaster Mitigation, emerged out of this broad agreement. Under this five-year program, NSF provides funding for U.S. researchers, while collaborating Japanese researchers are being supported principally by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture.

NSF has made thirty awards under the program thus far, and current set of projects includes highly innovative and multidisciplinary research topics, each with a significant educational component. Subject areas include, for example, studies of the effects of near-field ground motions, earthquake resistant design for lifelines and foundations, performance-based design, perceptions of earthquake impacts and loss-reduction preferences of citizens, and disaster mitigation for urban transportation systems. These projects involve significant interaction between U.S. and Japanese researchers and are enabling researchers from both countries to accomplish goals that they could not accomplish separately.

As another example, following the earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan in 1999, NSF established a research program to support exploratory research that would lead to collaborations between U.S. researchers and their counterparts in Turkey and Taiwan. Many of these collaborations were established well before the destructive earthquakes. Workshops in both countries will be held during the summer, 2001, and research opportunities will be identified. NSF will work with counterpart agencies in Turkey and Taiwan to establish a research program similar in operation to that developed for the collaborations with Japan. In a similar fashion, NSF will be open to proposals for collaborative research between U.S. and international colleagues following the Nisqually quake.

Research Facilities

NSF has long recognized that its mission to advance science and engineering in the U.S. includes providing the academic community with requisite resources for developing world-class research facilities and equipment. And NEHRP legislation has reinforced our own expectations regarding this important role for NSF. Let me provide some examples of our efforts to ensure that U.S. researchers have the required facilities to conduct cutting-edge research well into the next century.

George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES)

Congress has authorized funding for the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation for a five-year construction period from October 1, 1999 through September 30, 2004, for a total of $81.9 million. This project is the result of a planning process called for in the 1997 NEHRP reauthorization legislation, from which NSF, in collaboration with the other NEHRP partners, developed a comprehensive plan for modernizing and integrating experimental earthquake engineering research facilities in the U.S. The goal of NEES is to provide a national, networked collaboratory of geographically distributed, shared use next-generation experimental research equipment sites, with teleobservation and teleoperation capabilities.

I am happy to report progress in the construction of NEES. Eleven equipment awards have been made in the first phase of construction. These awards include funding for two shake table sites, two centrifuge sites, a tsunami wave basin, four large-scale laboratory testing sites, and two mobile laboratories for field experimentation and monitoring, including post-earthquake damage evaluation. This equipment portfolio provides unique, new and advanced research capabilities for the nation's earthquake engineering research community.

Construction of the NEES network has also started, with a scoping study award made to the NEESgrid team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The NEES program will leverage public and private investments in the $100 billion-a-year information technology industry by using existing software and making effective use of the high-speed networking infrastructure that is one of NSF's most successful investments. We believe that this utilization of advanced IT will enable the earthquake engineering research field to move from a reliance on physical testing to integrated model-based simulation. This will be a major transition for earthquake engineering research and lead to results that rapidly help advance performance-based design concepts for earthquake engineering and hazard reduction in the nation.

In addition to providing access for telepresence at the NEES equipment sites, the network will use cutting-edge tools to link high performance computational and data storage facilities, including a curated repository for experimental and analytical earthquake engineering and related data. The network will also provide distributed physical and numerical simulation capabilities and resources for visualization of experimental and computed data. In addition to the NEES equipment sites, the network will provide connectivity to other major earthquake engineering equipment sites that bring unique experimental capabilities to NEES, both in the United States and abroad.

The collaboratory, including experimentation sites networked together through the high performance Internet, is on schedule and on budget for completion by the end of FY2004.

NEES will also serve as a major educational tool. By being Internet-based, the collaboratory will be accessible by researchers, students, professional engineers, owners of public and private works, and the general public. For example, teachers and students at all levels throughout the U.S. will be able to access the network for data, information, and course material as well as to participate in various experiments. Involvement with NEES will also enable students to sharpen skills in utilizing modern information technology tools and resources. Such learning opportunities could be made available for pre-college students, as well as college students, ushering in an unprecedented appreciation for earthquake problems and a new age for earthquake engineering education.

NEES, then, promises to lead to a new age in earthquake engineering research and education. It will be well worth our Nation's investment. We look forward to keeping the Subcommittee informed about its development.

Mr. Chairman, this completes my remarks. I will be happy to answer any questions that the Subcommittee might have about NSF's activities.

See also: