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Comment on the Manslaughter Verdict in L’Aquila Earthquake Trial

Over 300 people were killed by the April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. On October 22nd this year a court in L’Aquila found seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The defendants were sentenced to six years imprisonment and fined a total of 7.8 million euros. As human beings we would here like to express our sympathy and condolences to the earthquake survivors and the families and friends of the victims. As scientists we would also like to express concern about the trial verdict and its implications.

The Major Risks Commission met six days before the earthquake. According to media reports, the reason for the guilty verdict was not that it failed to predict the earthquake, but rather that its inadequate analysis of the situation and poor communication of that analysis lead in part to a situation where people died. It is certainly a fact that the judgment of the commission as interpreted by the government lead to the curtailment of evacuation plans: how this came to happen must be investigated in order to prevent any reoccurrence.

The six seismologists on the Major Risks Commission had been asked by the government to predict and evaluate major natural disasters. They voluntarily contributed to the government’s disaster prevention efforts out of a sense of duty to apply the results of their research for the good of society. In such a position scientists are normally responsible for making objective predictions about future events based on a detailed analysis of the current situation; for accurately communicating these predictions to the administration; and for encouraging the administration to communicate comprehensive and accurate information to society at large. However it is in the nature of science that there are limits to accuracy and that predictions are always accompanied by uncertainty.

The main purpose of natural disaster research is to reduce and mitigate disaster risk. Such research makes progress by publicly announcing judgments and opinions based on scientific investigation. Should these research activities become the focus of criminal legal action, there is the risk that discussion and debate will be stifled and that the progress of research will be impeded. In order for any administration to implement a reasonable and appropriate disaster prevention policy it is vital that scientists are actively involved and that there is an objective discussion of risks and predictions in order to obtain a consensus as to the best course of action. However, if this process carries the risk of criminal sanction then scientists are likely to be less willing to participate. This is unlikely to help to decrease the risks from natural disasters.

Geoscientists and in particular seismologists study the enormously complicated system that is the planet earth, and on the basis of very limited information attempt to analyze, evaluate and predict natural disasters. Because of the multifaceted nature of the phenomena involved, our limited knowledge and experience naturally leads to uncertainty. As a result, prediction of natural disasters is a limited and incomplete science, and from time to time events which we are unable to predict do occur. As scientists we are all deeply aware of the limitations in our field and we all feel a duty to work to reduce them. However in order to maintain an atmosphere of mutual trust it is also important that we communicate effectively with both government and the general public so that they understand correctly the current situation.

Based on what we have learned from the L’Aquila verdict I feel that scientists have a duty to strive to improve the accuracy of disaster evaluation and prediction.

Toshitaka Tsuda

President of the Japan Geoscience Union

Professor, Kyoto University

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