Scientific negligence goes on trial for manslaughter in Italy

“Scientists” today enjoy a general reputation for being unbiased, objective, incorruptible and dauntless seekers after truth. With this reputation they also have little liability for their pronouncements or for the integrity or the quality of their work. This is not sustainable as the politicisation of science is increasingly unavoidable and temptations for scientific misconduct grow. To try and de-politicise science is impractical. More emphasis can be placed on developing ethical standards which should reduce the incidence of misconduct. But I think the key is to ensure that scientists carry some liability for what they do and that they do it honestly. A scientist is no less a professional than a lawyer or an engineer or a physician or an architect. They do have some liability for the quality of what they do. Incompetence, negligence or dishonesty carry penalties for other professions and scientists can not and should not be exempt.

Of course the scientific community is up in arms about the seismologists being tried for manslaughter in Italy, but they do need to be held accountable for their negligence or incompetence – if demonstrated. Wearing a white coat and calling oneself a “scientist” should not provide automatic immunity from accountability and liability.

Scientific American:  By Nicola Nosengo

Six Italian seismologists and one government official will be tried for the manslaughter of those who died in the earthquake that struck the city of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009. The seven were on a committee that had been tasked with assessing the risk associated with recent increases in seismic activity in the area. Following a committee meeting just a week before the quake, some members of the group assured the public that they were in no danger. 

In the aftermath of the quake, which killed 309 people, many citizens said that these reassurances were the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as leaving their homes. As a consequence, the public prosecutor of L’Aquila pressed manslaughter charges against all the participants in the meeting, on the grounds that they had falsely reassured the public. After several delays, the public prosecutor Fabio Picuti and the defendants’ lawyers appeared this week before Giuseppe Gargarella, the judge for preliminary hearings, who had to decide whether to dismiss the case or proceed with a trial.

During the hearing, the prosecutor called the committee’s risk assessment “superficial and generic”, resulting in “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory public information”. Responding to the thousands of scientists who had signed a letter of support for the defendants, the prosecutor acknowledged that the committee members had no way of predicting the earthquake, but he accused them of translating their scientific uncertainty into an overly optimistic message. More specifically, the accusation focuses on a statement made at a press conference on 31 March 2009 by Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency and is now president of the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome. “The scientific community tells me there is no danger,” he said, “because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”. ….

 At the end of the hearing, the judge decided that the trial will begin on 20 September. …

The earthquake was surely not predictable and poor building standards surely contributed to the deaths but whether the scientists exhibited incompetence or negligence is a valid question. And if they did they need to be held accountable even if not perhaps for manslaughter.

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