DisastersLeading U.S., U.K. scientists condemn conviction of Italian earthquake scientists

Published 31 October 2012

A judge in Italy last week sentenced six Italian seismologists and a former government official to six years in prison over the deadly 6 April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. The seven defendants were found guilty of manslaughter; Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Sir Paul Nurse, president of the U.K. Royal Society, issued the following statement

A judge in Italy last week sentenced six Italian seismologists and a former government official to six years in prison over the deadly 6 April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. The seven defendants were found guilty of manslaughter.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

Scientists, alarmed by the verdict, have warned that the case might have a chilling effect, making scientists and experts think twice before sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits.

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Sir Paul Nurse, president of the U.K. Royal Society, issued the following statement:

The case of six Italian scientists sentenced to be jailed for failing to warn of the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 highlights the difficult task facing scientists in dealing with risk communication and uncertainty.
We deal with risks and uncertainty all the time in our daily lives.  Weather forecasts do not come with guarantees and despite the death tolls on our roads we continue to use bikes, cars, and buses.  We have also long built our homes and workplaces in areas known to have a history of earthquakes, floods, or volcanic activity.
Much as society and governments would like science to provide simple, clear-cut answers to the problems that we face, it is not always possible. Scientists can, however, gather all the available evidence and offer an analysis of the evidence in light of what they do know. The sensible course is to turn to expert scientists who can provide evidence and advice to the best of their knowledge. They will sometimes be wrong, but we must not allow the desire for perfection to be the enemy of good.
That is why we must protest the verdict in Italy. If it becomes a precedent in law, it could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal. Much government policy and many societal choices rely on good scientific advice and so we must cultivate an environment that allows scientists to contribute what they reasonably can, without being held responsible for forecasts or judgments that they cannot make with confidence.

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