Science and Accountability.

L'Aquila Earthquake

wikipedia  commons

On April 6, 2009 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit the town of  L’Aquila, Italy.    

      Governments and industries alike rely heavily on the information of scientists to manage risks, but scientists might be unwilling to give advice in the future because on the 22nd October 2012 six scientists and one public servant who were part of the Italian ‘National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks’ were found guilty of manslaughter after underestimating the risk of a deadly earthquake that killed 309 people in the historic town of L’Aquila.  The seven people involved face six years in jail and millions of Euros worth of damages.  As a result risk management specialists across the western world are concerned about this new trend in litigation which they have labelled ‘the blame game’, arguing that natural disasters are not totally predictable.      Scientists, policy makers and practitioners at all levels of government who provide scientific and technical advice are subsequently very worried and with good reason.  The Queensland Floods Commission Inquiry identified four dam operators for possible criminal sanctions, but did not proceed because of insufficient evidence.  The Queensland floods and cyclones of 2010-11 cost the state $7.5 billion.

Scientists and their cohorts are now wondering how far the Italian precedent will extend in the context of an increasing number of seismic related incidents with some linked to human activities.   The  question occupying everyone’s mind is will the conviction of the seven Commission employees now reduce the willingness of other scientists and management officers to share information on the potential for disasters in the future?    Will they bend towards administrative priorities?  In reality, very little information concerning risks is given to the public, how much worse can the situation get?  What about risks associated with coal seam gas? Are we at risk?

In light of the vagueness of information one can understand the court’s decision in L’Aquila where  on March 30th 2009 a 4.1 earthquake hit the town causing damage to buildings, less than a week later the lethal 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck, but over the previous four months a swarm of small earthquakes were being experienced with increasing frequency and intensity.

As some industry scientists have suggested,  ‘if the Italian experience is replicated here or even if it creates some level of unease in the scientific community which discourages their involvement, the preparation and planning for future natural disasters will be compromised with potentially more adverse consequences for the community.’

According to reports the presiding judge in L’Aquila believed those representing the Commission failed to appropriately convey the level of risk to the local population, hence people were not able to take action and prevent injury. This prompted the public prosecutor Fabio Picuti, in his closing speech to judge ‘the analysis of the Major Risks Commission’ as ‘deficient, unsuitable, inadequate and culpably deceptive.’

No one enjoys proportioning blame, and jail might not be the appropriate solution for error, but L’Aquila should be a wake-up call for governments and corporations who appoint boards of inquiry to consider that they might not be immune from prosecution if communities are put at risk.

[Sources: The Mirror October, 24th 2012.  The Conversation 25th October, 2012, AAP and the Queensland Floods Commission Inquiry].