Monday 22 October 2012

Six Italian scientists gaoled for failure to predict Earthquake.

Six Italian geoscientists and one government official have been gaoled by Judge Marco Billi today for failure to predict an Earthquake, following a guilty verdict at a trial in a prefabricated building on the outskirts of L'Aquila, the Italian city devastated by the quake on 6 April 2009. All seven received six year sentences, and will be expected to pay reparations to the families of around €100 000 each to the families of all 29 quake victims named in the case, and potentially to the families of all 309 people killed in the quake, as well as others injured or who lost property (including the city council).

Public Prosecutor Fabio Picuti (left) talks to Judge Marco Billi (right) during the trial. Science.

The trial has been widely criticized both within and outside Italy, with a open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science attracting over 5000 signatures. It is likely that if the verdict is not overturned fairly quickly then Italy may suffer a curtailment of scientific cooperation with other countries, and potentially suspension from international scientific bodies.

Geoscientists do attempt to predict geological hazards, but this is far from a precise science, and the likelihood of it becoming more precise in the future will be greatly curtailed if scientists feel that the very attempt might lead to legal action being taken (some of the bodies involved had previously been warned of legal action by authorities over false-alarms, and consequent disruption to business). Potentially this case could open the road to legal action against scientists in any field (including medicine) who are unable to make 100% accurate predictions on every occasion. 

It is unclear at this time if the scientists involved will appeal, or if the Italian government will (or can) intervene to overturn the verdict.

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