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Six years of jail to scientists for L’Aquila earthquake. Trial against science?


Six Italian scientists have been found guilty for having given insufficient warning to residents of L’Aquila about the seismic risks they faced ahead of earthquake that hit the city in the night of 6 of April 2009.  The earthquake had a magnitude of 6.3 and caused 309 deaths, more than 1.500 injured and more than 10 billion euro in estimated damage. The earthquake was preceded by a series of seismic events, which began as early as December 2008.

The news the trial has been picked up around the world. Was it a trial against science? Who will now provide advice on risky topics such as earthquake and volcano explosion if they can then be found guilty of manslaughter? After all, earthquakes cannot be forecasted, isn’t it? Even when there are a series or tremors one cannot be sure that a strong earthquake will follow and when? Was this a court case against science? What will be the implications?

L’Aquila finds itself in one of the more seismic areas of the Italian peninsula. There are recorded major earthquake back in 1315, 1349, 1398, 1423, 1456, 1461, 1462 and so on until our days.

With regard to trial I think it is useful to go back to the justification for starting this trial as expressed by the judges in May 2011.  The six scientists have been accused of ‘negligence, carelessness, and violation of the general regulations of Law no. 150 of 7 June 2000 concerning the regulation of the activities of information and communication of the government carrying out, on the occasion of this meeting, an ‘assessment of risks’ to seismic activity in the area of L’Aquila during the December 2008  …  generic and ineffective in relation to the activities and duties of ‘prediction and prevention’, and providing incomplete, incorrect and contradictory information about the dangers of seismic activity …  therefore not meeting the duties of risk assessment.’

Reading this it is clear that the trial is not against science. It is not about scientists doing their job the best way they can, recognizing that it is impossible to impossibility to predict 100% an earthquake. The trial is more about whether the scientists have done their work properly, whether, given the seriousness of the risk faced by L’Aquila, have they performed their duties according to the law and professional ethical standards. The law does not ask them to predict something that cannot be predicted. The law asks them to provide full information to the people who are at risk. The court has found (this is the first trial our of total of three if there is appeal) that in this case they did not.

Scientists, who provide advice and research for public use and policy making, have the responsibility of applying the high standards to their work and to follow the law when it comes to communicating with the public and institutions. While this applies to all policy research, I think it is even more important for high-risk sectors such as natural disasters, nuclear energy and so on.

I think that court case about L’Aquila is more a court case against a certain type of Italy more than anything else. It is more then the use of science in decision-making and policy, it is about moral and ethics in conducting and communicating research. What happened in L’Aquila is a further blow in the trust that Italian citizens feel towards the State. Not that there is much left, note the journalist Eugenio Scalfari who, during a talk show last Sunday, said that the majority of Italian hate the State. They consider it a nuisance, a disturbing presence knocking at their doors and asking, for example, to pay taxes.  I would not say, as Scalfari did, that the majority of Italians hate the State, but certainly there is very limited trust towards State and politicians.

One of the prosecutors said that the point of departure of this trial started because the son of one of the victims went to him and said ‘My father died because he believed in the State.’ He then continued and said that this is not a trial against science but rather a trial about the responsibility of conducting and communicating science. People have died in L’Aquila because they repeated what they had heard from the Civil Protection Department and stayed at home.

Let’s not forget that the National Commission for the Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks is the structure that connects the Civil Protection Department (the disaster management agency in Italy) with the scientific community. Its main function is to provide technical and scientific advice on questions of the Head of Department and provide guidance on how to improve the capacity assessment, prediction and prevention of different risks.  At the same time the Civil Protection Department has been plagued in recent years by accusations of mismanagement and various scandals:

2011 – Arrest for Sandro Gambelli, head of civil protection in Genoa in the investigation about the big flood of November 4, 2011, during which six people died. It ‘accused of aggravated forgery. Investigated also Gianfranco Del Ponte hazard managers of the municipality (La Repubblica).

2011 – Investigation on the 72ml Euro used by National Service of Civil Protection to e for the environmental remediation that have not been done properly at the island of La Maddalena (Sardinia) ahead of a G8 meeting that in the end was moved by the government to L’Aquila. (Gruppo d’Intervento Giuridico)

2011 – The head of the Civil Protection Department resigns under political pressure following accusations of widespread corruption in the Department, the existence of a network that made use of legislative loopholes, which assigned contracts to the same companies for major events.

2011 – 5 major contracts commissioned by the Department of Civil Protection under investigation:  main tennis stadium in Rome (2009); Ne sport museum in Tor Vergata (Rome); international airport in di Perugia; two major building for the G8 in La Maddalena (see above) (one can rightly ask what has all this to do with the Civil Protection)

etc. etc.

The next months and years will tell us if the scientists are confirmed guilty or not. In the meantime science will continue to inform the Civil Protection and hopefully make its contribution to building trust between our society and institutions. Thinking about the use of research and evidence in policy and decision making I start to think that it may be more about governance and ethics than anything else. Areas which, I think, have not been much researched in this sector yet.

P.S. One can easily find online the minutes of the meeting held in L’Aquila on 31 Marzo 2009 where the National Commission for the Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks participated. The experts say that earthquakes cannot be predicted, but also say that it is unlikely that in the short term there could be a shock similar to the one of 1703.  The minutes continue saying that the best defense is stronger building and a population aware of the risks. Where were the funds from the State to make the building stronger in L’Aquila? Building the new tennis stadium in Rome?  http://bit.ly/POaJeR

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