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A year ago an Italian court sentenced six scientists and an ex-government official to six years in prison for manslaughter. More specifically, the judge found them guilty for failing to give adequate advance warning to the population of L’Aquila, a city in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about the risk of the April 2009 earthquake that caused 309 deaths. As they await word of their appeal, the scientists maintain that the true culprit in that disaster was the government’s inability to communicate nuanced scientific information to L’Aquila’s citizens.
Much of the prosecution’s case hinged on a meeting of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks in L’Aquila one week prior to the earthquake. That confab, run by the Italian government, featured a committee of scientists who discussed the difficulty of predicting seismic activity but also pointed out that Abruzzo—L’Aquila in particular—sits on one of the worst earthquake zones in the country. Following the meeting, the government downplayed the risk of an earthquake, giving residents a false sense of security that discouraged them from fleeing to safety once the magnitude 6.3 quake had begun, according to prosecutors.
One of the convicted scientists continues to defend his position that the charges against him and his colleagues were “illogical” and warns that they set “dangerous precedents for the future of the scientific process.” In a letter to be published Friday in Science, Enzo Boschi, former president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, also noted that the meeting’s discourse prompted the city’s mayor to close certain schools and recommend a state of emergency be declared—moves that may have saved some lives. He says the court later ignored the mayor’s testimony.
Perhaps more troubling, the prosecution also misrepresented a 1995 study by Boschi and others in which they noted that a handful of powerful earthquakes recorded in Abruzzo in the 17th and 18th centuries did not prove that the risk of future temblors in that area was high. Boschi argues that the prosecutor “completely distorted” that study’s purpose and conclusions. “The public prosecutor’s superficial interpretation of scientific results to bolster his argument sets a grave precedent for not only seismology but many other disciplines as well.” The 1995 study was not meant to be the final word on Abruzzo’s vulnerability to strong earthquakes but rather a present a point for further scientific discourse.
Boschi's letter is a powerful defense against the unjustified conviction of scientists in the L'Aquila case, says Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California, where the center is headquartered. The problems in communicating seismic risks prior to the L'Aquila earthquake resulted from a poorly constructed and badly misused risk-advisory system run by the government, not the fault of actions or statements by the scientists themselves, he adds.
Instead, the scientists found their views and actions lumped in with those of Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice director of the government’s Department of Civil Protection, who at a prequake press conference to discuss the commission's meeting reportedly downplayed the danger of an imminent earthquake. When a reporter asked whether residents should then relax with a glass of wine, he is quoted as saying, "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano," referring to a type of red wine. De Bernardinis's lawyers claim he was making a joke, but prosecutors seized on this statement nonetheless.
“This comment was irresponsible and, as far as I know, it did not represent the views of the rest of the committee, including Dr. Boschi, or of our ability to forecast earthquakes,” says Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “The earthquakes at L'Aquila were part of an earthquake swarm, and science does not permit us to predict whether the swarm will include a large damaging earthquake mid-swarm or will simply taper off without damage.”
The L’Aquila prosecution has been the “trial of the century from a seismological point of view or more generally from the perspective of the scientists involved in public policy and, in particular, risk-communication issues,” says Jordan, who chaired the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection formed by the Italian government in the aftermath of the L'Aquila event to assess the scientific knowledge of earthquake predictability and provide guidelines for effectively gathering, updating and disseminating information to the public.
Scientists should be asked to provide the appropriate advice on the scientific issues, but communicating a course of action based on that advice must be done by people who can take into account political, economic and other factors that weigh on those actions, Jordan says. “It comes back to what is the appropriate role for scientists—and the appropriate role is not making risk-management decisions but rather giving advice,” he adds. “If that is done properly I don’t see liability associated with that.”