GSA Medals & Awards

2005 GSA Public Service Award

J. David R. Applegate
J. David R. Applegate
U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia

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Presented to J. David R. Applegate

 Citation by Peter F. Folger

Public service in the geosciences is difficult to define in a manner satisfactory to all who understand its value and who wish to honor those in our community who deserve distinction. The GSA Public Service Award admirably captures important aspects: improving public understanding of earth sciences or serving decision makers in the application of earth science information to public policy. Yet even that description falls short when applied to this year’s recipient, David Applegate.

A Supreme Court justice once said, on the topic of public indecency, that it is difficult to define pornography, but you knew it when you saw it. Similarly, we struggle to define the nature and value of public service in the geosciences, and what defines true excellence in that endeavor. But we know it when we see it embodied in David Applegate.

What are the data that support this observation? They are numerous. Dave led the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute for 8 years and elevated it to a new level of excellence, capturing the John Wesley Powell Award from the USGS in 2003. Dave did all of the government affairs for most of AGI’s 42 member societies, and he added immense value to other member societies with their own programs. Dave served double duty as editor for Geotimes for 4 years and penned 75 “Political Scene” columns for the magazine. His columns were a joy to read, timely and relevant, and as a collection would comprise an eminently readable cross-section of those issues spanning public policy and the geosciences over nearly a decade. Perhaps Geotimes will take the hint.

Dave’s “Political Scene” columns were a sampling of a prodigious outflow of analysis and commentary on topics ranging from the intricacies of the federal budget process to the geological and political complexities of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. His writings informed, as you might expect, readers of geoscience publications like GSA Today, Eos, AAPG Explorer, and Seismological Research Letters, but he also wrote for the Ecological Society of America NewSource, the Natural Hazards Observer, and the Skeptical Inquirer. And Dave took on issues such as creationism when the “debate” stretched uncomfortably beyond boundaries of reasonableness most scientists take for granted. On this particularly vexing and persistent topic, it takes special talent to keep one’s wits about one when the other side doesn’t follow the norms of scientific debate. The geoscience community has been extremely fortunate to have Dave Applegate arguing on the side of good science eloquently and forcefully for many years.

It also takes special talent to move easily between the worlds of geoscience and public policy and to make an impact in both as Dave has. He can and does testify in front of congressional committees during the day and teach courses on environmental geology and natural hazards at Johns Hopkins University at night. He can and does get his haircut at the U.S. Senate barbershop, rubbing elbows with our senior politicians, and he also rubs elbows with greenhorn undergraduate geologists on the outcrop while teaching field camp at the University of Utah. He is currently the senior science advisor for earthquake and geologic hazards at the USGS, leading the survey’s earthquake hazards, global seismographic network and geomagnetism programs, and yet continues to be a source of wisdom and insight to the community at large on other issues that link the geosciences to public policy.

These are a sampling of Dave’s contributions that have advanced the Earth sciences in the public interest. There is an entire other class of activities where Dave has excelled, but which do not appear on his CV or list of accomplishments. People in positions of influence and political power occasionally do stupid things, and a timely phone call to a congressional office or a prudent visit to a senate staff member can often steer a decision-maker back towards a sensible course of action. Having access and influence in the political world is hard won but easily lost, and it is accomplished by earning the trust and respect of lawmakers and their staffs over the years. Dave has the ability to speak truth to power, and to be heard when it counts.

GSA has made an inspired choice in selecting David Applegate as this year’s recipient of its Public Service Award. Happily for the entire earth sciences community, we honor Dave near to the beginning of his career and can look forward to his future accomplishments in advancing the geosciences to the benefit of us all.

 top 2005 GSA Public Service Award - Response by J. David R. Applegate

Thank you for this recognition! Knowing who the previous recipients are makes this all the more meaningful. I am of the generation that came to geology through the words of John McPhee, developing a view of the science so hopelessly romantic that four summers of field work in Death Valley could barely put a dent in it. I am fortunate to have worked alongside Julie Jackson at the American Geological Institute, watching Earth Science Week blossom under her care, and I am in awe of Stephen Jay Gould and Eugenie Scott, powerful voices on behalf of the teaching of evolution. Personal heroes all.

It is an honor to be introduced by my distinguished colleague from the American Geophysical Union. In Washington, people refer to their distinguished colleagues all the time, but they seldom mean it. I do. For the better part of a decade, I have had the good fortune to make common cause with Pete, his enthusiasm and commitment carrying us through many a geopolitical scrape.

Without money to put in campaign coffers or voter blocs to sway, geoscience societies have but one case to make for policy action: public value. Fortunately, we have a strong case to make, because geoscientists have a great deal of relevant expertise and perspective to contribute to important policy debates. I owe my career as a science policy wonk to the commitment made by geoscience societies to actively engage in this arena. An AGU congressional science fellowship brought me to Washington in 1994, where I experienced the inner workings of a Senate committee during a year of political sea change that brought with it the threatened elimination of the U.S. Geological Survey. That experience showed me the importance of building broad coalitions of support and the willingness of the geoscience community to mobilize for a cause.

I applaud GSA for its support of congressional fellowships — our most direct means of injecting geoscience expertise into the policymaking process — and express my gratitude for the contributions that GSA made to the AGI Government Affairs Program during my eight years there. Support from GSA and other member societies enabled the program to grow toward a goal that Sam Adams set for me when I first arrived at AGI: That there not be a single major issue facing the geoscience community in Washington to which the program did not respond. I am indebted to Sam not only for handing me such an elegantly simple, albeit daunting, challenge, but also for his encouragement and guidance throughout my time at AGI and especially during our collaboration on Geotimes. His is a steady compass.

I am also indebted to AGI’s Executive Director, Marcus Milling, for giving me enough rope with which to hang myself, trusting my judgment and providing the resources needed to get the job done. I also want to express gratitude to Jon Price and Murray Hitzman, early guides in D.C. who have remained long-time mentors and friends, and to Kasey White, Margaret Baker, Emily Wallace, and the many geoscience student interns who rose to the challenges that a small program provides. Moving beyond work, my thanks to David Dinter and the University of Utah for allowing me to still be a field geologist on occasion. And to Heidi for showing me just how glorious life can be.

During my decade in Washington, I have known many public servants, but I did not fully apprehend the meaning of public service until I joined the USGS last year. From the inside, I see just how hard the Survey’s extraordinary scientists are working to understand geologic hazards and to build partnerships that translate understanding into better building codes and faster delivery of hazard information, getting it into the hands of the people who need it when they need it and in a form they can use.

The devastation in Sumatra changed our world, and we have a moral responsibility to avoid a similar catastrophe whether in that region, the Caribbean, or around the Pacific Rim. Recognizing that scientific knowledge and warning systems must be paired with public education, let us all take a lesson from Caltech’s Kerry Sieh, whose posters for Sumatran coastal communities conveyed what he had learned about past tsunamis and what to do about the threat from future ones. The work of every geoscientist in this room has implications for society. We have an obligation to explain those implications and by doing so, make a difference in a town, a school system, a legislature, or along a coast half a world away.

Thank you very much.