Geology & Geophysics Tribute

Merle Lee Allison (1948–2016)

A dynamic geologist with a knack for organizing people, he served as state geologist in three different states and pioneered global efforts to develop cyberinfrastructure for the Earth sciences.

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M. Lee Allison
M. Lee Allison Credit: Stephanie Mar

M. Lee Allison, state geologist and director of the Arizona Geological Survey, died on 16 August 2016 after suffering a head injury from a fall at his home on the previous Saturday.

Lee was a talented geologist who loved the outdoors, always seemed to have time for people big and small, and did not suffer fools gladly. He served as state geologist in three states and was a longtime active member of the Association of American State Geologists. In those roles, he never settled for business as usual but always championed the value of geological resources for national security and prosperity and the contribution that state geological surveys could make to the economic well-being of a state and its citizens.

Lee was born in 1948 in the Philadelphia area, where he spent his first 11 years before his family moved to Los Angeles. He received a B.A. in geology at the University of California, Riverside (1972), and was the first in his family to attend college. He pursued an M.S. from San Diego State University (1974) and worked for several years at Standard Oil Production Company in Texas before returning to academia to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (1986) on structural analysis of the Tensleep Fault in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. Following his Ph.D., Lee held positions as an exploration-development geologist with Chevron and as a research geologist with the University of Utah Energy and Geoscience Institute, specializing in oil, natural gas, and geothermal research.

From 1989 to 1999, Lee was the state geologist of Utah, before moving on to assume the state geologist position in Kansas from 1999 to 2004. During his tenure in Kansas, he chaired the Kansas Energy Council from its inception in 2002 until 2005. In 2004–2005, he served as policy adviser for science and energy to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. In December 2005, Lee was appointed Arizona state geologist, a position he held until his untimely death.

Myth Buster

Lee was a tireless organizer, a savvy political operative, and the possessor of a wicked sense of humor. While he was state geologist in Utah, he wanted to host the Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in Salt Lake City, but the idea met with resistance from the beer-loving segment of the geoscience community based on the perception that the city was dry.

To overcome this, Lee convinced one of the Salt Lake City breweries to supply some kegs of beer, got an airline to fly it for free to the GSA National Meeting in San Diego, and then advertised that the Utah Geological Survey booth would be having free beer at 4:00 p.m. Not surprisingly, it was mobbed, and the teetotaler myth was broken; several years later, the annual meeting was in Lee’s hometown.

When Kansas authorities tried to introduce “creation science” into school science standards, Lee played a key role in rallying opposition. Those efforts led to the founding of the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science.

Glowing Recognition

Lee has been honored with numerous awards, both formal and informal. Among the latter, the Hutchinson News (Kansas) hailed Lee as a “Shining Light” for helping restore the city to safety after deadly natural gas explosions in 2001. The History Channel featured this calamity in its documentary series “Engineering Disasters.”

Author Sarah Andrews loosely based her murder mystery Fault Line on Lee’s experiences during a controversy about the location of active faults in Salt Lake City leading up to the 2002 Olympics. Being an inspiration for a book made Lee especially proud.

In 2002, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists recognized Lee with its Public Service Award. The next year, he received the Tanya Atwater “Encourage” Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists for promoting the role of women in the profession. The American Institute of Professional Geologists honored Lee with its John T. Galey Jr. Award for Public Service in 2008.

Geoinformatics Pioneer

Lee was active at the interface between science and public policy throughout his career and became a world leader in efforts to develop cyberinfrastructure for the Earth sciences. Lee recognized the field of “geoinformatics” early for its potential to accelerate discovery and bring science into policy decisions.

Knowing that state and federal geological surveys in the United States held enormous volumes of data, much of which was already in digital form, Lee convinced the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide funding in 2007 for a workshop on data sharing.

This was typical Lee, knowing how to get the right people to work together to make actual progress. An outcome of the workshop was the joint recommendation that “the nation’s geological surveys develop a national geoscience information framework that is distributed, interoperable, uses open source standards and common protocols, respects and acknowledges data ownership, fosters communities of practice to grow, and develops new web services and clients.”

Lee pursued this goal ceaselessly in the following years, and his activities became more national and international, as principal investigator of the Test Governance project for NSF’s EarthCube initiative, cochair of the Belmont Forum e-Infrastructure and Data Management Secretariat and Steering Committee, North American member of the OneGeology board of directors, chair of the Geological Society’s Geoinformatics Division, and a member of NSF’s Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure.

Pulling Big Data (and People) Together

Lee marshaled the resources of 48 state surveys to build the National Geothermal Data System in collaboration with the Department of Energy. A member of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) since 1980, Lee was highly involved in recent years with the organization’s geoinformatics efforts. He served as an advocate for numerous sessions at AGU’s annual Fall Meeting and as the publication liaison for the society’s Earth and Space Science Informatics focus group. In another AGU role, Lee was a member of the Eos Editorial Advisory Board since 2008.

With his boundless energy and enthusiasm and his skill at bringing people together, Lee often served as the connector who enabled breakthroughs in geoinformatics. All of us will ultimately benefit from Lee Allison’s legacy of promoting the development and accessibility of big data in the geosciences.

Lee is survived by his wife, Ann Becker; brother, Mark Allison of Claremont, Calif.; and sister, Cathy Torrance of Las Vegas, Nev.

—Stephen M. Richard (email: [email protected]), Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.; and Denise J. Hills, Geological Survey of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Citation: Richard, S. M., and D. J. Hills (2017), Merle Lee Allison (1948–2016), Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO067545. Published on 14 February 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY 3.0