31 October 2012
In Italy last week six scientists were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter for their role in communicating the risks of the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 which led to the death of 309 of the city’s inhabitants. The jury in the case found that the scientists - three seismologists, two engineers, and a volcanologist, plus a government official responsible for public communication of major risks - were guilty of providing 'inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory' information regarding the likelihood of such a serious earthquake occurring.
It is important to underline, as many cautionary reporters have already, that the scientists have not been convicted of failing to predict an earthquake; that is an inherently complex task using technology that cannot deliver forecasts with absolute certainty. Rather, it is the actions of the scientists in official and public communications concerning the level of risk that has been at the center of the case. Prosecutors have claimed that the defendants were negligent in communication of the appropriate recommendations based on their scientific analysis at the time. Of course, the real danger in this line of reasoning is that public risk communication will itself be put at risk of growing legal liabilities.
Several scientific associations such as the Geological Society of America, the International Council for Science, and the National Academies of Science and Royal Society have voiced alarm saying that the Italian court has overstepped an important boundary. Science relies on practices and procedures that allow scientific work to operate without fear of severe criminal repercussion for faults in communication. In many scientific disciplines positions of official public responsibility are a vital point of connection between science and society, and this connection should be carefully protected and maintained.
SPSSI Policy Coordinator