Scientists Jailed Over Earthquake Risk Warnings

A group of Italian scientists have been jailed for six years for manslaughter after a government official dismissed predictions of an earthquake in 2009.

The convicted group included six scientists and one former government official, all of whom worked for the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.

The sequence of events that led to the conviction began when an independent lab technician predicted an earthquake in L’Aquila, sparking a panic. The men who’ve now been convicted met as part of an expert panel to discuss the prediction. The minutes of the meeting show they did not say there was no danger of a major quake. Instead they merely said that the lab technician’s data, which was based on measurements of radon gas, was not a sure way to predict a quake.

However, the government official, Bernado De Bernardinis, then told the press that “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.”

These comments, which were not a reasonable summary of the panel’s discussions, came on March 31st, 2009, two days after the lab technician’s predicted date for the quake. Six days later an earthquake did indeed strike L’Aquila, killing more than 300 people.

The subsequent court case has been somewhat misreported. The convictions are not because the scientists failed to predict the earthquake. Instead prosecutors said they failed to communicate the known risks accurately. Although it was De Bernadinis who made the public comments that there was no danger, prosecutors say the scientists bear responsibility for not correcting his comments.

The conviction comes despite a letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Italian president, backed by more than 5,000 scientists, calling for the prosecution to be dropped. It warned that “subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchanges of ideas necessary for progress in science.