Researchers alarmed by jail sentence for Italian scientists

Judge Marco Billi reads the sentence of the seven defendants in the trial ‘Major Risks’ in L'Aquila, Italy, 22 October 2012. Six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter by an Italian court on for failing to give adequate warning of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L'Aquila in 2009. EPA/CLAUDIO LATTANZIO

Researchers worldwide have condemned an Italian court’s judgement that six scientists and a government official are guilty of manslaughter for underestimating the risk of an earthquake accurately.

The case, in which seven members of the country’s Major Risks Committee were sentenced to six years jail for underestimating an earthquake that killed 309 people in the town of L'Aquila in 2009, has implications for all scientists, said University of Sydney astronomer Bryan Gaensler.

“This brings a lot of troubling precedents,” he said.

“It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of uncertainty, about the accuracy of models and the responsibilities of scientists.”

Scientists can’t give frank advice if they are to be held criminally liable for a shortcoming in any model which is a work in progress and which uses a lot of assumptions, he said.

“There are many aspects of our lives where we rely on predictions. No theory is fool proof, no prediction is 100% sure and there are a range of day-to-day assumptions we make about vaccines, weather forecasts, the safety of getting in cars or aeroplanes. People have to understand that models have limitations.”

Professor of Seismology, Earth Physics at the Australian National University, Brian Kennett, said that even if the judgement is appealed, it “will have a major inhibitory effect on any group worldwide making pronouncements about future risk.”

“Earthquakes are intrinsically unpredictable and it’s possible the Italian group may have been too reassuring in the light of that fact,” he said.

“However, lives are at risk because building stock is inadequate. The quickest way of saving lives is to build better. People are reluctant to spend the extra five or 10% to make a building earthquake proof.”

The finding will encourage more caution on the part of scientists in making predictions, which may not be helpful, said Prof. Kennett.

“You will then be more likely to make no pronouncement rather than the wrong pronouncement,” he said.

Wayne Peck, senior seismologist in the Seismology Research Centre at Environmental Systems and Services told the Australian Science Media Centre that communicating earthquake hazard risk to the public was already complex.

“To err in one direction leaves them open to being charged with being "too reassuring” but to err in the other leaves them open to being accused of being alarmist. Either way, minor nuances in the language used can be interpreted differently by different audiences, leaving the experts in a no win situation.“

Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, said the "bizarre verdict will chill anyone who gives scientific advice, and I hope they are freed on appeal.”

“The lesson for me is that scientific advisers must try and retain control over how their work is communicated, and are properly trained to engage with the public,” he told the UK Science Media Centre.

Prof Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at the University College London, said the verdict was extremely alarming.

“If this sets a precedent then national governments will find it impossible to persuade any scientist to sit on a natural hazard risk evaluation panel. In the longer term, then, this decision will cost lives, not save them.”