Early History of the
International Seismological Centre

A Personal View from Chris Argent

(GovCouncil/ExecCom Secretary 1970-2000)

Received: 15 May 2012


At an ad hoc meeting in Madrid during the 1967 IASPEI Scientific Assembly, a resolution was adopted calling for an urgent exploration, in conjunction with UNESCO, of options for establishing the International Seismological Centre (ISC) on a firm constitutional and financial basis (even though at that time the thought uppermost in the minds of all those involved was to set up the ISC on an intergovernmental basis). As a consequence of that resolution, UNESCO undertook to convene a consultative meeting of experts (eventually held in Paris in May 1970) and the Royal Society (which had previously invited IASPEI to set up the ISC in the UK at Edinburgh) agreed, at the invitation of UNESCO as mediated by Dr Michael Fournier d’Albe (of UNESCO), to prepare draft statutes. To this end, the Royal Society secured the help of a legal expert from the British Foreign Office (Dr D.R. Gilmour) who, with the help of a member of the Royal Society’s staff (C.R. Argent) prepared alternative statutes that would establish the ISC essentially either as an intergovernmental agency or as a private charitable institution under Scottish law

In November 1969, the Royal Society convened an ad hoc meeting in London at which several of the interested parties were represented, specifically UNESCO, the NSF, the UKAEA, NERC and various British governmental agencies (NERC, the Overseas Development Ministry, and the Institute of Geological Sciences) and was also attended by the then ISC Director (Dr P.L. Willmore). The meeting concluded that the non-governmental approach represented the best possible solution to securing the long-term viability and financial stability of the ISC. Accordingly, it was decided to so advise UNESCO, given all the legal problems that would ensue in trying to set up the ISC as a inter-governmental body. The subsequent (May 1970) UNESCO Meeting of Experts from countries that were then supporting the ISC financially concluded, after studying the draft statutes, that the non-governmental solution put forward by the Royal Society – with provision in the draft statutes for the international supervision of the Centre by a Governing Council comprising representatives of the contributing institutions – had to be the preferred route forward and so recommended to the UNESCO DG (and in effect to IASPEI, the responsible Association of IUGG for seismology and, at that juncture, the ISC).

In November 1970, the Royal Society convened a meeting that brought together representatives of the six countries then supporting the Centre (Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, USA, USSR) together with the representative of UNESCO which was also providing financial support to the Centre, the draft statutes having in the meantime been signed and sealed by the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Society as the trustees. The meeting was also attended by representatives of several other interested countries, specifically Denmark, the Netherlands, the FRG, Switzerland, Australia, and South Africa.

Having been convened, this meeting then evolved into the first meeting of the ISC’s Governing Council, seeing the appointment of its first Chairman (Dr J.H. Hodgson of Canada), its Honorary Secretary (C.R. Argent), and of the Executive Committee (Dr N.V. Kondorskaya - USSR, Dr E.T. Herrin Jnr - USA, and Dr H.I.S. Thirlaway – UK). A representative each of IASPEI and of the host institution (University of Edinburgh) were subsequently appointed to serve on the Committee, a practice that has continued to this day.

In accordance with the statutes that were then guiding the governance of the Centre, the Governing Council examined the budget and approved those elements of the proposed programme put forward by the Director. Priorities were set specifically related to the analysis of received data and the timely publication of the Centre’s printed output, particularly the first priority products: the monthly Bulletin and Regional Catalogue, and a timetable set for the Centre to make good the gap between events and publication of the processed data that had in the interim increased alarmingly from the target of 22 months from event to publication of the pertinent data. Having rejected the concept of a project-led work programme which had been put forward at this initial meeting by Dr Willmore as the incumbent Director, who was a member of the staff of the Institute of Geological Sciences and, consequently, had effectively been only a part-time Director following the move of the ISS to Edinburgh in 1963, the Council opted to appoint a new full-time Director, namely Dr E.P. Arnold, with immediate effect. At that juncture, Mr A.A. Hughes (formerly of the ISS staff) was appointed Deputy Director charged with managing the Centre until Dr Arnold could take up his post after securing his release from the USGS. It also determined the precise mix of staff (both local and overseas) who should undertake the Centre’s approved programme.

After this initial meeting in November 1970, the Centre’s Governing Council met on a biennial basis and the Executive Committee, that was (and is) responsible for the close(r) supervision of the Centre’s finances and programme, held meetings on an annual basis. Between meetings, it had been the responsibility of the Hon. Secretary, until his retirement 1999, to endeavour to recruit new ISC members and to issue invoices for the annual subscriptions to the Centre that members voluntarily undertook to pay.  These tasks are currently undertaken by the Director and the Administration Officer.

The appointment of staff from overseas, enshrined in the Centre’s statutes, became a key element of the Centre’s philosophy as by that means the Centre could be shown to be a truly international organization, even though it was being operated under Scottish law as a private charitable not-for-profit body in the UK. The Centre’s marking pens from the earlier regime, labeled ‘International Seismological Research Centre’ were soon hidden away.

Key elements in the Centre’s governance provided for formal representation of each and every agency (be it government department or academic institution) providing financial support for the Centre’s work programme, with voting rights assigned to countries on a proportional basis in accordance to the amount of finance subscribed. Although the correlation of voting rights to subscriptions was significantly weighted towards the lower end of the subscription scale which varied from one unit to as many as 85 units, the statutes provided that on practically every issue that would have to be submitted to a vote, each member country would have the same voting rights. The unit of subscription was set initially (for 1971) at $500, but has increased in steps subsequently to keep pace with inflation in the host country. While there were just seven members in the Centre’s first full year of operation (the UK, USA, USSR, Canada, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand), the Centre has subsequently widened its support basis which now includes nearly 60 agencies. In the early years of the 21st century, the subscription unit was denominated in £ sterling that being the currency of the greater part of the Centre’s costs. Particular features of the support that the Centre has received include:

  1. Provision for more than one member per country even though voting rights can only be exercised on behalf of each member country;
  2. Support for parts of the Centre’s work programme was provided in the early years by UNESCO, specifically for an annual publication, Felt and Damaging Earthquakes, containing filtered extracts from the Regional Catalogue of Earthquakes, and for the biennial Bibliography of Seismology; these publications ceased to be produced after withdrawal of UNESCO’s support which was specific to them;
  3. In later years, the Centre was able to secure additional financial support for specific tasks (such as acquiring its own computing facilities) from a variety of agencies including the NSF, the Royal Society, EU Research Directorate, INTAS and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

Over the years, the Centre has received tangible but non-financial benefits from a variety of agencies with which it has cooperated notably its various host institutions (successively, the Universities of Edinburgh, Reading and Oxford), the International Data Centre set up in Vienna to monitor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the European and Mediterranean Seismological Centre, its initial parent body – IASPEI (and its Committee on Observatory Practice) which last mentioned Association continues to be represented on both the ISC’s Governing Council and its Executive Committee.

While the Centre was based in Edinburgh, data processing was done on a VAX 1108 at East Kilbride, near Glasgow), but was soon transferred to an IBM computer at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory at Chilton in Oxfordshire. In order to secure better access to that computer (some 350 miles distant from Edinburgh), the decision was taken to move the Centre to Southern England and a hunt commenced for suitable premises to rent: possible homes that were examined included an old commercial office in Hungerford and a disused airfield control tower in Oxfordshire before an office (Clarendon House) was found in Newbury. This sufficed for a few years until it was realized that, as a consequence of unpredictable rent increases, the Centre was having difficulty controlling its budget. Logic dictated that the Centre needed its own accommodation and, in due course, the authority was given to purchase, with a US dollar denominated mortgage, an office/warehouse on the outskirts of Newbury: at Thatcham. Some time before this in cognizance of the financial insecurity afflicting the Centre, and in deference to the views of some members of the GC who considered that the Centre might achieve financial viability by acquiring some form of intergovernmental status as a component agency of the WMO, several members of the Executive visited Geneva for discussions with the then Secretary General (Arthur Davies) and Vienna to survey possible offices in the UN complex. These visits were arranged after an exploration of the possibilities for affiliation with the WMO. It transpired that the Centre’s costs would escalate substantially in such an environment, so the Executive turned its attention to finding secure accommodation in the UK. Subsequently, the Director negotiated a formal affiliation with UNESCO that provided for a continued formal dialogue between the two – to the benefit of both.

At this stage (early 1980s), the Centre had a relatively stable computing environment though it was not in-house and a base whose costs could be accurately assessed and predicted. The final phase in the establishment of the Centre as it now is was to secure in-house computing facilities. Initially, this was provided by a VAX 11-75 computer that was installed in a temperature-controlled room at the Piper’s Lane building, this being later replaced by a more stable Micro-VAX 3600 computer. In 1999, in order to maximize the expertise that its staff could bring to bear on all the varied processing programs that the Council had called for, the MIcroVaX was supplanted by individual SUN Work Stations.

Other stories on the ISC history