UC Berkeley press release

NEWS RELEASE, 10/07/97

National Science Foundation names UC Berkeley to head one of three new national earthquake engineering research centers
by Jesus Mena

BERKELEY -- The National Science Foundation has chosen the University of California at Berkeley to head a major West Coast earthquake engineering research center that will harness the expertise of nine academic institutions to find ways to reduce the cost and casualties from a major earthquake.

Called the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center, it will receive $2 million each year for five years from the federal government, plus another $2 million each year in matching funds from the State of California, the University of California and Washington state. Other grants already promised to the center will raise the total available funds for the coming year to more than $6 million, says center director Jack Moehle, professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley.

"The PEER Center is a consortium of western U.S. universities committed to work together to develop technologies for reduction of urban earthquake losses," says Moehle, who has been the director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Center at UC Berkeley for the past six years. "The breadth of expertise and facilities provided by the consortium will enable us to rapidly tackle the most difficult earthquake problems."

NSF also funded two other centers at $2 million per year for five years: the Mid-America Earthquake Center, based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Center for Advanced Technologies in Earthquake Loss Reduction, at the State University of New York in Buffalo. The focus of these other centers is distinct from UC Berkeley's center.

Partners in the PEER Center, aside from UC Berkeley, are the University of California campuses at Los Angeles, Davis, Irvine and San Diego, plus Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California and the University of Washington in Seattle. Nine other affiliated universities are scattered throughout the western U.S.

The establishment of the California center was the result of work and support on many fronts. Gov. Pete Wilson, former state Sen. Al Alquist and the California Seismic Safety Commission were instrumental in securing the necessary state matching funds.

"Through its academic excellence and achievement, the PEER Center will provide vital information in preparing for and handling future seismic disasters for leaders around the globe," said Gov. Wilson. "Leading academic scientists will work side by side with economists and policy experts to build our base of knowledge, helping minimize future economic damage and investing in public safety. California is the rightful place to lead the charge and meet the challenge. I commend our academic institutions and their leaders for making this selection a reality."

UC President Richard C. Atkinson likewise heralded the effort.

"The awarding of the earthquake research center to California is another example of the quality of California's research universities and the vital role they can and do play in expanding the world's scientific knowledge for the betterment of people everywhere," said Atkinson.

According to Moehle, "the funding commitment from the National Science Foundation will establish a core of basic and applied research. It also is the first step toward establishing a broader research and implementation partnership between federal and state government, universities and business."

In anticipation of the award, Pacific Gas and Electric Company already has committed $2.4 million to the center for the first year to establish a utilities research component. Moehle anticipates that other key industry sources can be tapped to work with the center on industry-driven research.

The primary emphasis of the PEER Center, Moehle says, will be on the engineering and economic aspects of urban earthquakes that threaten the western U.S. The seismology and geology of earthquakes are well covered by other research centers, in particular the U.S. Geological Survey, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and UC Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory.

"Recent earthquakes have had increasingly greater losses associated with them, and conceivably the losses from a major quake in an urban area of California could cost two to three times the state's annual budget," Moehle says. "To effectively reduce these losses requires a systems approach that considers the many interacting elements of the social and physical environment.

"Our proposal was to establish a multi-disciplinary center that bridges the gaps between traditional earthquake disciplines such as seismology and engineering, and brings in other disciplines such as political science and economics."

The center will target research funds to projects that contribute to its goals, steering research in specific directions and encouraging new projects to fill gaps in knowledge. The projects are expected to involve not only engineers and earth scientists, but also economists and public policy experts.

The center will also establish an education program, with elements aimed at K-12, university and professional continuing education. This program will help raise awareness of the earthquake problem at all levels, will bring bright new students into earthquake-related disciplines, and will transfer new knowledge to earthquake professionals, Moehle says.

A unique aspect of PEER is a commitment to apply the basic earthquake engineering research funded by NSF and state governments to reducing the earthquake risks to businesses and industries. Through its Business and Industry Partnership Program, the center has a flexible mechanism for managing industry-funded and industry-directed applied research. The $2.4 million dollar PG&E-PEER program is an example of focused, problem-solving applied research. The center will involve professional engineers in defining high-priority applied research needs for industry and in working with partners to use new technologies.

The universities were initially brought together to develop a proposal for the center by the California Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering (CUREe), a nonprofit corporation formed by eight California universities with strong programs in earthquake engineering. The University of Washington was invited to join the group to create a team that offers not only the world's best experts in earthquake engineering and risk reduction, but also the best facilities.

These include the world's largest three-dimensional earthquake simulator, at UC Berkeley; the largest centrifuge-based shaker in the country, at UC Davis; the largest reaction wall facility, at UC San Diego; and major laboratories and computer facilities at many of the member institutions. A key component of the consortium will be teleconferencing facilities at each university to allow researchers to converse frequently and share data without having to travel all over the West Coast.

Some of the important problems PEER will tackle include what will happen when a great earthquake strikes an urban region and what can be done about it. Recent experience demonstrates that moderate earthquakes such as the 1994 Northridge or 1995 Kobe events can inflict tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars of losses. There is no experience that can demonstrate the effects of even larger earthquakes on modern urban regions. The center will aim to understand the extent of the problem before it happens, and work to develop technologies and strategies to reduce the inevitable losses.

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