L’Aquila convictions focus attention on advisors’ role

Features editor

Six seismologists have been convicted on manslaughter in Italy because their advice was misunderstood and miscommunicated. Experts who deal with governmental advice and public safety everywhere need to take note.

The conviction of six Italian seismologists for manslaughter over ‘false assurances’ about the risk of the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 has been roundly condemned by scientists across Europe. It has called into question the whole practice of expert advice to government, and focused attention on earthquake prediction and risk.

It seems that what happened in Italy was, at best, an error in communication. After ‘swarms’ of small tremors were detected in the Abruzzo region, a group of seismology experts met in L’Aquila and advised the Civil Protection Agency that such swarms were not a sure predictor of an imminent large earthquake — which is quite true, because earthquakes are impossible to predict with any accuracy. They didn’t say that there was no risk of a major earthquake, for the same reason.

However, following the meeting, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo de Bernadinis, told the press that the scientists had told him there was no danger — as a result of which, many L’Aquila residents stayed in their homes. When the quake hit, the following day, it destroyed 20,000 buildings and killed 300 people.

The court ruled that the scientists should have publicly corrected de Bernardinis’s statement, and therefore shared his culpability; all seven are now beginning six-year sentences, which is two years longer even than the prosecution requested. Perhaps they should have. But it’d be a brave Italian scientist who gave anything other than the absolute worst-case scenario if a similar situation were to arise again — which, in a country on the Ring of Fire where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are a constant risk, is very likely. The level of scientific knowledge and understanding of the statistics of risk seem to be appallingly low in the Italian judiciary: unfortunately, they aren’t much better anywhere else.

There’s a warning lesson here. The deaths and injuries were caused by collapsing buildings, not suited to the unstable geology of L’Aquila. A mixture of inadquate building codes and poor engineering was to blame there; engineers could be forgiven for looking at the unfortunate seismologists and thinking ‘there but for the grace of God’. We know how to build safely in earthquake regions — The Engineer has reported on research on protecting historic buildings and making new buildings quake-resistant, for example. hopefully, the teams involved in rebuilding L’Aquila are taking note of the latest techniques in earhtquake resistance engineering and acting accordingly. Any engineers advising local government had better make sure they are giving their advice loudly and clearly, and going public if they their recommendations aren’t enacted.

It would be easy for us in the UK to look over to Italy, shake our heads and say that it couldn’t happen here. For one thing, we don’t have high-magnitude earthquakes; for another, nobody thought of suing Michael Fish 25 years ago, when he rubbished predictions of the ‘hurricane’ that caused such damage across Southern Britain. But think of what happens when scientists employed by the government make public their disagreements with policy; and how often politicians disregard expert advice in search of votes and approval.

It’s important that members of the science and technology community make their opposition to such travesties as the L’Aquila judgement known. But it’s equally important for anybody involved in advising governments, and any scientist or technologist who deals with risks to the public, to make sure their opinions are communicated clearly, well understood and acted upon. And to take action if they aren’t.