On 10 November 2014 the L’Aquila appellate court cleared Italian scientists of the manslaughter charges after the earthquake of 6 April 2009. The six leading scientists and disaster experts, and the Deputy Head of the Department of Civil Protection [DPC], had been given, in the first instance trial in 2012, a six-year jail sentence. “The credibility of Italy’s entire scientific community has been restored” commented S. Gresta, the president of the INGV.
In the L’Aquila region, an area of high seismic activity, a seismic sequence started in January 2009 and continued in the following months. A local individual (not a scientist) started issuing personal “predictions” of impending large magnitude shocks, which had no scientific basis. These statements however, were echoed in the media and caused widespread public concern.
On 31 March 2009, four members of the Major Risk Committee, the scientific advisory body to the Italian government, two other experts and the DPC officials met in L’Aquila. The main conclusions of the meeting, released only after the 6 April, were: earthquakes are not predictable in a deterministic sense; the seismic hazard in the region is among the highest in Italy; the risk of occurrence of a large earthquake in the short term is not larger than before. However, the general message of a press conference held immediately after the meeting (without the presence of the scientists), was taken by the media as reassuring.
In the 2012 verdict, the scientists were charged to have unduly contributed to reassuring the population. As a consequence, 29 people who normally left their houses when alarmed by small quakes remained at home and died when these collapsed in the big shock.
The potential legal liability of the scientists serving in the advisory bodies not only raised a world wide debate, but generated negative consequences for society at large. For example, in some cases, scientists started to adopt attitudes that were overly cautious, leading to false or exaggerated alarms with increased costs for society and, in perspective, to a loss of confidence in the advisory process. The OECD Global Science Forum, whose mandate is strengthening the interface between science and policy, undertook a study of the topic. The final report, which will be ready soon, will include a number of recommendations on the usefulness of establishing transparent rules on the responsibilities of scientists, decision makers, on the communications to the public, on the international exchange of experience, etc.
It will be a useful document, especially in the more serene climate after the decision by the appellate court.