Sunday, November 04, 2012

Verdict in the L'Aquila Earthquake Case: Scientists Found Guilty

I have been following the developments in this court case in Italy, and the verdict came in about a couple of weeks ago (and the scientists are likely to go on appeal):

Italian court finds seismologists guilty of manslaughter
At the end of a 13-month trial, six scientists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict was based on how they assessed and communicated risk before the earthquake that hit the city of L'Aquila on 6 April 2009, killing 309 people.

... In addition to the prison term, those indicted will be permanently banned from public service and will have to pay financial compensation to the families of 29 victims named in the indictment and to the city of L'Aquila, totalling €7.8 million.

The Nature editorial on this case makes it clear that this verdict is not about scientists' failure to predict the fateful earthquake:

Despite the way the verdict has been portrayed in the media as an attack on science, it is important to note that the seven were not on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. As members of an official risk commission, they had all participated in a meeting held in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, during which they were asked to assess the risk of a major earthquake in view of the many tremors that had hit the city in the previous months, and responded by saying that the earthquake risk was clearly raised but that it was not possible to offer a detailed prediction. The meeting was unusually quick, and was followed by a press conference at which the Civil Protection Department and local authorities reassured the population, stating that minor shocks did not increase the risk of a major one.

In fact, an Italian official went so far as to say, “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy”. The problem for the scientists appears to be that they did nothing to correct this "scientifically incorrect" statement.

Nature has another piece with protections extended to American and British scientists when they serve on advisory committees:

Many scientists contacted by Nature agree that better legal protection, along with transparent guidelines about the obligations of science advisers, are long overdue in Italy. “The case resulted from the fact that the legal role of scientific advisers is still not well defined in Italy,” says Mariachiara Tallacchini, who studies science-related legal issues at the Catholic University of Piacenza. “Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States are more advanced in regulating science policy”.

John Beddington, the UK chief scientific adviser, agrees. “I do not think such an outcome would be possible in the United Kingdom, unless the advice was demonstrably grossly negligent or wilfully malicious,” he told Nature. “And in the case of civil proceedings, all advisers are indemnified by government.” Similar protection is granted to science advisers in the United States, where seismologists advising national and state governments would be immune from such prosecution.