The L’Aquila verdict

On 22nd October 2012 a court in L’Aquila found six scientists and one government official guilty of multiple manslaughter following events leading up to the devastating earthquake that hit the city on 6th April 2009. The seven, all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, have each been sentenced to six years in prison, and ordered to pay court costs and damages.

SECED remains at a loss to understand how expert opinion in the L’Aquila case could lead to criminal prosecution of the experts involved and hopes that the facts of the case, including the reasoning behind the judgement, will be released for scrutiny by the greater public and expert community. Compounding the tragic loss of life at the time with the subsequent criminal prosecution of these seven experts makes it essential that the relationship between experts, the State and the Public at large is challenged.

Society can obtain most from science when scientists can give their opinions freely in open debate. Therefore, the events in L’Aquila must not be permitted to compromise the provision of expert opinion, leaving scientists and engineers to continue contributing fully to the benefit and advancement of society.

Whilst the facts of the L’Aquila case and the reasoning behind the verdict remain unknown at this time, it is clear that there are issues emerging from the case relating to risk assessment, legislation and communication that are relevant not only to earthquakes, but to all other extreme natural events. There are tremendous challenges in communicating low probability, high consequence events to a public who generally lack the scientific understanding of these issues; indeed, a public who understandably look for guidance and direction from the State as to what action to take to remain safe. In this respect, it is important to distinguish the role of science and engineering professionals in the interpretation of data and information available, and the role of public officials in issuing advice to the public. Roles and responsibilities on advisory panels or commissions need to be clearly defined, understood and adhered to. In addition, professionals providing advice need to be informed not only of their duties and liabilities under the terms of their appointment, but also their responsibilities in terms of the legal jurisdiction in which they operate. This is particularly pertinent to professionals working in the field of earth sciences where the subject matter invariably crosses national boundaries.

As the issues emerging from the L’Aquila verdict cross a wide spectrum of public life, there is a need for the various professional institutions and learned bodies to work together to raise the level of debate and work towards harmonising the professional, administrative, legal, political and public understanding of risk. SECED is aiming to work with other learned bodies in this regard in the near future.