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.


  1. Yes very interesting I see miles of distance between the two statements. Are they practitioners of the same science? ;)

    The first statement projects science as an arrogant entity that should be aloof from being pinned down to any possible responsibility, and offers no engagement.

    The other statement sees science as something that should be integral to society but making a case and essentially asking to take part in renegotiations.

  2. You have to say, both in the content of the statements, and the rush-to-judgement, the Anglos got it wrong. 'Roads are dangerous but we still drive'? Talk about simplistic and patronising.

  3. It is a dissociation of risk which engenders corruption. Congratulations to the French and Germans for recognizing this obvious conclusion. It's unfortunate that the Americans and English missed it.

    Well, at least someone understands that experts are also stakeholders, and should not be wholly exempt from experiencing the consequences from the risk their analysis is intended to mitigate. The formation of a standards or internal investigation committee is long overdue.

    Incidentally, it was this same dissociation which was the cause of the global crises. It manufactured an effective virtual environment where the normal feedback mechanisms were either bypassed or subverted. This motivated a progressive corruption from the richest to poorest.

  4. I'd be interested to hear how you see the threats facing these respective academies factoring into their responses. Do you think it's a matter of different ways that scientists see themselves as stakeholders, or could it be different ways they see themselves as discreditable in the public eye?

    I'm told that funding (especially state funding) for science is scarce throughout Italy (and maybe other places in the EU?), leading researchers to worry over proving themselves and their findings generally relevant. US researchers, on the other hand, talk not only about funding constraints but also about modes of thought that are overtly and unapologetically anti-science. See, for example, the whole bruhaha over the hockey-stick chart of climate change.

  5. OT: Another climate-disaster story:

    Climate Change Causes Insurers to Rethink Price of Risk After Hurricane Sandy


  6. Engineers are held responsible for their output at many levels. There can be professional, civil and even criminal consequences from their decisions. I find it very difficult to understand why scientists should be any different from engineers, lawyers, surgeons or members of any other profession. If scientific statements cannot be relied upon to guide decisions then why are they made? Scientists should be aware of the possible consequences of their statements and accept that there might be personal consequences it they turn out to be ill considered. Climate and other environmental scientists are well known for the extreme predictions that they make. They should be prepared to take responsibility for them.

  7. Interesting. Had there been no earthquake would there have been a crime?

  8. Sorry Roger, but I still believe you are completely wrong on this one. As Robert so succinctly puts it above, had there been no earthquake, there would have been no crime. The scientists involved communicated what they believed was the best advice they could given their knowledge of the situation. It turned out to be wrong. So what?

    Frankly I see little wrong with the statement by the US and UK academies. I can't see how the comparison with weather forecasts is invalid at all. The European statement seems to me to be devoid of any practical meaning - what are they actually trying to say, that scientists should be held accountable for predicting inherently unpredictable events? What it does say is that the public's trust in scientist was severely damaged BY THE EARTHQUAKE.

    Which brings us back to Roberts point - the idea that a scientists actions could be made legal or illegal at some point in the future by the occurrence (or not) of an inherently unpredictable event is total anathema to the conduct of science, and you should be embarrassed to be supporting this unscientific viewpoint

  9. Peter Wilson:

    The issue is not dependent on the outcome; although, it does change the character of the assessment. It is principally concerned with due diligence and appropriate distribution of risk to stakeholders at each level.

  10. 8. Peter Wilson said...

    "As Robert so succinctly puts it above, had there been no earthquake, there would have been no crime."

    That seems rather pitiful reasoning. By that logic you simply say all failures to do a good job which later, merely by chance, escape resulting in calamity can not be crimes.

    Or is this clause just for scientists?

    Or are you saying that the scientists were not doing anything so base as a mere "job", good or otherwise, here?

    Why don't you just declare scientists to be a unique species who can enunciate with authority whilst having no responsibility?

    The were *many* earthquakes occurring in L'Aquila leading up to the night of the deaths, the deaths occured in the THE EARTHQUAKE you capitalise as if it was so unfair to pick on one event.

    I think some background is called for when you see such simplifications - before the intervention of the scientists the people in L’Aquila where by all accounts in a state of behaviour that meant they were already taking precautions during the *many* earthquake swarms occurring in the days before. Sleeping outdoors, alert to every tremor. Unprompted, without any conclusions offered to them by the scientists.

    Would you say they were behaving “un scientifically” by behaving like this?

    After the infamous news conference some of these same people apparently changed their behaviour after rationalising it based on the what was communicated to them. They died as a consequence.

    To say the scientist had no responsibility beyond being part of the machinery detracts from the humanity of all involved - victims and scientists.

    "Probability-based statements are per se fraught with uncertainty. At all times, scientists must communicate this fundamental fact as clearly as possible."

    That comes from the European statement that you seem to think was devoid of meaning - actually you seem to have more ease making up a meaning i.e. you think they said "scientists should be held accountable for predicting inherently unpredictable events"

    It doesn't say that.

    The scientists did not communicate uncertainty. They should be aware of that if they are sentient participants in a body called "The National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks". They have some responsibility when arriving in an area with heighten fears of ongoing tremors to find out how their advice was received on the ground and not depend on passively assuming that politicians would take that burden.

    As am paraphrasing here from my response to a blog author who made this acute observation:

    "..they have been sentenced because they failed to act as independent scientists".

    I think the concept of "independence" is an overriding perception of science to most people, whatever the actual truth, and this perception works both ways with scientist taking it for granted, and the public assuming they are pure from influence. Looking at the politics I think these scientists have been made scapegoats to some extent, however the question of how much diligence these scientists applied to *all* aspects of this event is a valid question and should not be shouted down.