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Will Italy's L'Aquila quake verdict have a chill on science?

An Italian court found a group of Italian scientists guilty of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warnings of a massive earthquake.

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The verdicts could lead to “paralysis” in the forecasting and prevention of natural catastrophes, he added.

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Italian scientists “of the highest caliber will hold back from doing their jobs, so that no professional opinions will be offered at all,” said Luciano Maiami, the head of the Major Risks Committee, who resigned in protest on Tuesday along with his deputy, Mauro Rosi.

There needed to be a much clearer division of roles between experts providing their technical expertise and the officials who acted on them, said Stefano Gresta, the current president of the National Institute of Geophysics. "What scientist will want to express his opinion knowing that he could end up in jail?" he asked.

The controversial verdicts generated headlines around the world. La Repubblica, one of Italy’s most respected dailies, said: “The Italian scientific world fears that they will no longer be able to work without risking a confrontation with the judiciary.”

The scientists feel they have been made scapegoats for an earthquake that caused millions of dollars' worth of damage, including the loss of historical churches and Renaissance works of art.

“After two years of suffering, I find myself condemned like Galileo, along with my colleagues. I didn’t reassure anyone. In that meeting, I said that no one can predict [earthquakes] and that one therefore cannot exclude them, either,” Enzi Boschi, who at the time of the quake was president of the National Institute of Geophysics, told Corriere della Sera newspaper.

The scientists plan to appeal the verdicts and will not serve any time in prison until the appeals process is exhausted, which in the Italian legal system could take years.

The exact reasons behind the convictions are not yet fully known – under Italian law, the judges in the case have 90 days before they have to release their “motivazione,” or sentencing report.

What was behind the judgment?

So the defendants will have to wait nearly three months to find out why the judges gave them jail sentences that were two years longer than the four years that had been requested by prosecutors – a decision that caused shock and dismay among the experts and their supporters.

The verdicts were condemned not just by the scientific community in Italy but by politicians, too.

“If they were convicted because they did not provide an exact prediction, then that is absurd,” said Corrado Clini, the environment minister. “It is not scientists who should tell the government or a local administration what to do, they tell them only what could happen.”

Gianfranco Fini, a center-right politician and the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, said the sentences were unfair and needed to be reviewed.

Pierferdinando Casini, the leader of the UDC, a conservative Catholic party, said the courts should put on trial builders responsible for shoddily constructed houses and apartment blocks that collapsed in the quake, rather than independent scientists.

The six scientists and one public official, the then-deputy director of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, plan to appeal the verdict, their lawyers said, meaning that the saga – and the controversy – is likely to drag on for years to come.

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