Six Italian scientists and a former government official were convicted of manslaughter on Monday for playing down the risk of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed 309 people in L’Aquila in 2009. The scientists were sentenced to six years in prison, and must also pay $10.2 million in court costs and damages, The New York Times reported. The scientists -- seismologists and geologists -- plan to appeal.
Academics around the world have condemned the prosecution of the Italian scientists as not only unfair but also unfounded, scientifically speaking. Earthquake prediction is a famously inexact science, with increases in risk measured in thousandths or hundredths of a percent. Although a series of tremors preceding the L’Aquila tragedy indicated increased hazard, the risk of a major earthquake remained very low, on the order of 1 percent, explained Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and a professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California. Jordan wrote a report commissioned by the Italian government in which he offered recommendations for how scientists could more effectively communicate the risks of seismic events to policymakers and the public.
The verdict, he said, could derail efforts to improve communication. “People are worried that this verdict could throw a lot of cold water on the relationships that scientists have with the public,” Jordan said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.