21 November 2012

Science Academies and the L'Aquila Earthquake Trial

The science academies of the US and UK have responded very differently than several of their European counterparts to the recent verdict in an Italian court against government scientists involved in the L'Aquila affair. The French, German and Italian academies have adopted a much more sophisticated -- and ultimately more constructive -- approach to understanding the implications of the lawsuit for the practice of science advice in government. This contrasts with the ill-informed snap judgement offered by the US and UK academies. This post provides some details on the different approaches.

The US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society were quick to criticize the Italian court verdict in somewhat hyperbolic terms. Here is the statement in full:
Oct. 25, 2012
Joint Statement Regarding the Recent Conviction of Italian Earthquake Scientists
by Ralph J. Cicerone, President, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Sir Paul Nurse, President, The Royal Society (U.K.)

The case of six Italian scientists sentenced to be jailed for failing to warn of the L'Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 highlights the difficult task facing scientists in dealing with risk communication and uncertainty.

We deal with risks and uncertainty all the time in our daily lives. Weather forecasts do not come with guarantees and despite the death tolls on our roads we continue to use bikes, cars, and buses. We have also long built our homes and workplaces in areas known to have a history of earthquakes, floods, or volcanic activity.

Much as society and governments would like science to provide simple, clear-cut answers to the problems that we face, it is not always possible. Scientists can, however, gather all the available evidence and offer an analysis of the evidence in light of what they do know. The sensible course is to turn to expert scientists who can provide evidence and advice to the best of their knowledge. They will sometimes be wrong, but we must not allow the desire for perfection to be the enemy of good.

That is why we must protest the verdict in Italy. If it becomes a precedent in law, it could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal. Much government policy and many societal choices rely on good scientific advice and so we must cultivate an environment that allows scientists to contribute what they reasonably can, without being held responsible for forecasts or judgments that they cannot make with confidence.
As I explained two days before the statement above, the idea that the scientists were being punished for a failure to predict did not reflect the actual complexities of the case.

Fortunately, the Italian, German and French science academies have taken a more measured look at this situation. The Italian Academy has set up a commission to examine the issues raised by the L'Aquila lawsuit, and the French and German academies offered the following statement in support of the Italian commission.

Here is the full statement from the French and German academies, issued last week:
Statement on the handling of risk situations by scientists

In late October, Italian scientists have been sentenced for supposedly not having warned sufficiently against the severe earthquake of L'Aquila 2009. On occasion of this verdict, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the French Académie des sciences publish a statement concerning the handling of risks situations by scientists. We forward the statement in the exact wording.

Joint Statement of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the French Académie des sciences, 12 November 2012

On the science-based communication of risks following the recent sentencing of Italian scientists

On 22 October 2012, a court in L'Aquila sentenced seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks to prison terms of several years. The verdict has sparked a worldwide discussion on the legal aspects of the accountability of scientists who advise government institutions. Scientists must participate in this discussion actively and as objectively as possible. The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the French Académie des sciences therefore expressly support the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian National Academy of Sciences, in its endeavours to set up an independent expert commission of geologists and legal experts. The role of this commission will be to examine the scientific and legal aspects of the L'Aquila verdict.

Scientific research is substantially motivated by the aim of providing greater protection against natural disasters. In the case of uncontrollable events such as cyclones, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, scientific forecasting methods are becoming increasingly important. Scientists and representatives of state institutions must work together with mutual trust in order to inform the public responsibly, and on the basis of reliable data, about possible risks.

In their risk forecasts, scientists assess the probabilities of future events. Probability-based statements are per se fraught with uncertainty. At all times, scientists must communicate this fundamental fact as clearly as possible. This is no easy task when it involves communicating with public-sector decision-makers and concerned members of the public who expect clear forecasts. However, scientists cannot – and should not – absolve themselves of this responsibility.

It is very unfortunate when the trust between scientists, state institutions and the affected members of the public is profoundly damaged. This occurred as a result of the devastating earthquake in L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

It is thus in the interests of all those involved that the events are reconstructed comprehensively, precisely and objectively. Only in this way is it possible to evaluate on a reliable basis whether the persons involved performed their duties appropriately in the situation in question.

The scientific community must also take an active part in the necessary examination process from the start. The decision of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei to set up an independent expert commission to examine the L'Aquila verdict is a clear and decisive signal in this regard.
It is not too late for the National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society to join the German and French academies in offering support for the Italian commission, and to correct their earlier misinterpretation of the L'Aquila lawsuit. There are difficult and complex issues involved in this case, and scientists everywhere will benefit from the drawing of lessons.