Seismology for Society: A Q&A with Dr. Lucile Jones, the 2023 Beno Gutenberg Lecturer

For the AGU 2023 Gutenberg Lecture, Lucile Jones discussed how social science research has helped her to better communicate seismic research to the public and legislators.

By Fionna M. D. Samuels, Ph.D, Optimum Seismic Fellow (@Fairy__Hedgehog)

Citation: Samuels, F., 2024, Seismology for Society: A Q&A with Dr. Lucile Jones, the 2023 Beno Gutenberg Lecturer, Temblor,

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Each year, the seismology section of the American Geophysical Union recognizes an outstanding researcher for their contributions to the field. As part of the award, the recipient presents the Beno Gutenberg Lecture, so named to honor to life and work of the renowned seismologist. Lucille Jones, the most recent recipient, gave the latest talk at AGU’s 2023 Fall Meeting held in San Francisco this past December.

While working as a seismologist at the USGS (1985-2016), Jones not only published over 100 papers on statistical seismology, but also worked to better inform the public about earthquake resilience. She developed the methods for earthquake advisories in California, designed and implemented the Great ShakeOut drill and advised Eric Garcetti while he was the mayor of Los Angeles. She founded the nonprofit Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society where she now works as the chief scientist. Through that organization, Jones continues to advocate for community resilience and has begun to push policymakers to embrace building codes that go beyond a life safety standard.

Lucille Jones (left) being introduced ahead of her talk. Credit: American Geophysical Union
Lucille Jones (left) being introduced ahead of her talk. Credit: American Geophysical Union


In her talk titled “Seismology for Society: Fast and Slow Thinking about Earthquakes,” Jones reflected on how she came to use social science research to improve how she communicates with the public about earthquake hazards. This Q&A is based on a follow-up interview to that talk.

FS: At the beginning of your talk, you mentioned that you were surprised to be awarded this recognition. What did you mean by that?

LJ: I was trying to say that the field has shifted. The Gutenberg Lecture tends to [focus on] the most mathematical side of seismology, the most theoretical side; that’s what’s been valued as being the best seismology. The idea that using seismology to help people would be considered the best seismology would never have happened 20 years ago.

FS: How has your experience in the field changed over your career?

LJ: When I first did this stuff, I felt like I was accepting that I wouldn’t be valued as a scientist. I’d have people say, “Why are you bothering to spend time talking to those reporters? You should be working on your paper.” In fact, the first time I talked about probabilities after an earthquake, there was a Caltech faculty meeting, and I was told that there was this physics professor who went ballistic: “What is that girl doing talking about probability? She sounds like Caltech is predicting earthquakes!” I don’t know if it was because I was a girl, or that it was misreported that I was a Caltech scientist, or because I was talking about earthquake prediction, but the idea was that if you bother taking calls and talking to the public, you aren’t a serious scientist.

Thirty years later, Caltech ended up asking me to teach a class for graduate students on talking with policymakers, how to work with policymakers. Five percent of the graduate students at Caltech tried to take that class. The younger generation gets it.

FS: You talked a lot about how you’ve used psychological principles to help communicate risk to the public. Which would you emphasize most?

LJ: There are two things. One is that to go to action, you must engage the affective system – you’ve got to get emotional engagement. People have got to believe that it’s worth doing. A big issue is that scientists come to that belief through data, but most [other] people don’t, because they don’t understand the data well enough. To engage the affective system, you need a story.

The other concept that I think is important is that to make the decision to act, you must believe your actions will make a difference. So, the most important thing is not convincing people that something bad is going to happen, but rather that mitigation is effective.

FS: Should every scientist study these concepts to be a better communicator?

LJ: I don’t think everybody needs to be out there doing science communication; we need fundamental science. What we are missing societally is that piece in between, because if you just have a non-scientist trying to communicate research, it just isn’t as effective and often they will misinterpret things. They don’t know enough and then they’re asked to compromise on decisions. That’s where having a scientist involved is really important.

We sort of did that at the USGS. The idea was funding people to do what I call science activation: that interface work, the translation work, the partnerships. But nobody’s funded to do that, they’re funded to do research. That’s the place that I think we need to emphasize going forward. Not that we all have to become communicators – we’ve got to do the research too – but we need to fund research scientists interfacing with [lay]people, so they know what the research means.

FS: You mentioned that you’ve been working toward changing the current building codes in California from life safety standards to functional recovery standards. Why do the codes need to be updated?

LJ: By “life safety,” it’s meant that the only role of government is to make sure you don’t kill somebody. If you choose to build a building that’s going to be a total economic loss after the earthquake, that was your bad financial choice to make, government doesn’t control that, but you shouldn’t kill anybody in the process. But we realized we can’t prevent everything, so the building code is structured to say your chances of collapsing are less than 1% in the 50-year life of a building.

Number one, who thinks all buildings only last 50 years? The house I’m sitting in is 80 years old. But also, a less than 1% chance of collapsing in 50 years is approximately equal to a less than a 10% chance of collapsing in 500 years. Would we accept 10% of our new buildings collapsing in the worst shaking of our once-every-500 year-earthquake? That is basically the San Andreas earthquake.

That’s what happened in Christchurch. One 1986 building collapsed, eighteen hundred [other buildings] had to be torn down, and the engineering officials said, “Yeah, we did our job, we gave you what we said we would.” That was not considered acceptable. It practically destroyed the city

FS: How does a functional recovery standard improve the code?

LJ: The idea of functional recovery is that you can recover the function of the building, it’s repairable. How fast you recover the function depends on the type of building – if it’s an emergency response building, you better get it back really quickly – but you know that you don’t have to tear it down after an earthquake.

Lucille Jones (right) accepting the Beno Gutenberg Lecture award. Credit: American Geophysical Union
Lucille Jones (right) accepting the Beno Gutenberg Lecture award. Credit: American Geophysical Union


FS: What has the process been like trying to change the building codes?

LJ: When we first tried to get it done in California, we got it through the legislature but it was vetoed by the governor saying that the federal government should be doing the standards and we can’t get this much out ahead. I don’t know why the governor chose to do that.

FS: And that was in 2018. What has happened since then?

LJ: Now there are federal standards that have been put in place. Within a year, there will be documents explaining how you go about doing a functional recovery standard. But if we leave it with the regular building code process, it won’t be implemented until around 2031 and would be voluntary. We know that voluntary doesn’t work.

FS: And that means trying to get legislation passed at the state level to change the regular building code. How soon can that happen?

LJ: At the Northridge anniversary talk earlier this year, I made a commitment that I’m going to be spending the rest of 2024 on a concerted push to try and get California to adopt functional recovery as our building standard. I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ve got to try because I think it’s the most incredibly important thing.

FS: What are you planning to do to get the ball rolling?

LJ: One of the first things I’m doing is convening a group of psychologists and engineers to talk about the messaging. Why has it not been effective? How do we talk about it differently to engage emotionally? Saving people’s lives is always a better emotional appeal than saving money.

You can make the argument that there are a lot of lives at stake. For example, the rates of suicides go up after major disasters because of the financial stress that people go through. There’s a lot of businesses that get lost, there’s a lot of hurt that happens because of damaged buildings. We’re trying to figure out how to make a simple message that is more engaging, that recognizes the value of functional recovery. If it comes off as “we’re going to help those rich building owners not lose so much,” that’s not going to appeal.

The second thing is understanding who the opponents [of functional recovery] are. The public side — what goes on in the legislature — that’s been getting through. It’s at the back end [behind closed doors], in an appropriations committee or in the governor’s office that the push stalls, so we really need to figure out: Who are the opponents?

FS: Why hasn’t there been much lobbying for functional recovery? It seems like it would benefit a lot of stakeholders, residents and building-owners alike.

LJ: The current estimates add about 1% to the cost of construction. In fact, there was just an affordable housing complex that got built in San Francisco. When it was underway, the building engineers convinced the owner to go to a functional recovery standard and change the plans. That added about a half a percent to the cost of the construction. The perception is that [the cost is] much larger than that. That’s partly why I want to start this process, by really trying to understand with the psychologists why that perception is so strong.

FS: Thank you so much for your time.

If you’d like to see Dr. Lucile Jones’ 2023 AGU Gutenberg Lecture, you can find it here on her AGU profile under “Awards and Honors.”

Fionna M. D. Samuels is Temblor’s Optimum Seismic Fellow. She is a science writer hailing from the Front Range of Colorado where she got her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared in Eos, Scientific American and Symmetry. Optimum Seismic is sponsoring their first Temblor science writing fellow to cover important news about seismic resilience of the built environment.

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