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Will the L’Aquila trial discourage scientists from being involved in public safety decisions?

Facebook poll

By James Dacey

On Tuesday 23 October a single judge in Italy is expected to decide the fate of seven men who have been charged in relation to the risk assessment that preceded the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila that left 300 dead. On trial are four scientists, two engineers and a government official, who were all part of an expert panel affiliated with Italy’s Civil Protection Department.

This panel had met six days before the quake to discuss the level of risk posed by a recent cluster of seismic tremors. Following the meeting, two members of the commission gave a press conference during which – the prosecutors say – the accused gave false reassurances to the public that a major earthquake would not occur.

The seven commission members are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. More specifically, they are charged with negligence regarding the risk assessment, as well as falsely reassuring the public that it was safe for people to remain in their homes because an earthquake would not occur. As part of their defence, the accused make it clear that it is incredibly difficult to predict precisely when and where an earthquake will strike.

If found guilty, they could each face up to four years in prison. You can read about the L’Aquila case as well as some of the latest research in latest in earthquake forecasting in this article published earlier this year in Physics World.

Clearly, the L’Aquila case is an incredibly complex mesh of science, politics and communication issues. It would be foolish to jump to any hasty conclusions before the verdict is announced, particularly without an in-depth knowledge of the cultures of both seismology and this small city perched on a hill in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.

But we want to know what effect this trial might have on scientists around the world, regardless of the outcome. In this week’s Facebook poll we want you to respond to the following question:

Will the L’Aquila trial discourage scientists from being involved in public safety decisions?


Please feel free to accompany your response with a comment to explain your answer.

In last week’s poll we asked if you agreed with the decision to award this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for their experimental work on trapping and manipulating quantum systems. The outcome was that 87% of respondents do agree with the decision while the remaining 13% do not. A resounding seal of approval for the Nobel Committee. Thanks for all your responses and we hope you take part in this week’s poll.

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