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.

Raniero Pizzi/AP
People listen to the verdict at L'Aquila (Italy) court Monday, Oct. 22. An Italian court has convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter for failing to adequately warn citizens before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

Finding a group of Italian scientists guilty of multiple manslaughter charges for failing to give adequate warnings of a massive earthquake in 2009 will paralyze the country’s scientific community, critics of the controversial case say.

Scientists will either refuse to give advice on the likelihood of natural disasters, or release the most extreme forecasts of floods, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions in order to cover their backs.

That would create unnecessary panic and false alarms in a country that is known for its high levels of seismic activity as well for having two large, brooding volcanoes that could blow at any time – Mt. Etna in Sicily and Mt. Vesuvius, which overshadows Naples.

The warnings came after six scientists and a senior public official were found guilty on Monday of providing inadequate warnings of the magnitude-6.3 quake that devastated the central Italian town of L’Aquila and surrounding villages in April 2009.

The quake, which struck after the region had been rattled by low-level tremors for weeks, killed more than 300 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

The scientists, some of the leading geologists in Italy, were all members of the Major Risks Committee and attended a meeting in L'Aquila six days before it was hit by the massive quake.

Prosecutors in the trial claimed that experts had given "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory" advice about the risk of a major quake.

The experts protested that they simply had simply given the facts and stated clearly that quakes could neither be predicted nor entirely ruled out in such a seismically active zone.

The case has drawn comparisons with Galileo being put on trial for heresy in the 17th century for insisting that the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around, as the Roman Catholic Church maintained.

He was forced to recant his views in 1633 and has since become a universal symbol of scientific rationalism.

The group was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty by a court in L’Aquila of involuntary manslaughter and playing down the risks of a large earthquake hitting the Abruzzo region, of which L’Aquila is the capital.

They were also ordered to pay nearly $12 million in damages to survivors. L’Aquila’s once-handsome medieval center remains a jumble of dust and rubble, amid endless wrangling over how to the rebuilding should be paid for.

Will all scientists become alarmists?

Fear of ending up in jail would dissuade scientists from giving any advice at all, or force them to err on the side of alarmism, giving the worst-case scenario so that they could never be accused of underestimating a risk, experts said.

That would “generate an exponential increase in alarms that will cause deep distrust in those who issue them, and panic among the general population,” said Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, which responds to natural disasters.

"It is easy to imagine the effect of this incident on all those asked to assume responsibility in these sectors,” he added in a statement.

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

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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