The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth Interior (IAVCEI) Reply
We are all shocked by the recent sentence in Italy. So, i was just made aware by Daniel Paul Le Heron of an official reply to the judicial decision
Most of you will be aware that six scientists and a former government administrator working for the Italian National Risks Commission were charged with criminal negligence over the major earthquake that struck and destroyed the town of l’Aquila in central Italy, and tragically killed over 300 people, on 6th April 2009. The charged includes Professor Franco Barberi, internationally renowned volcanologist, who is the inaugural IAVCEI Wager Medal winner in 1974. The major earthquake had been preceded by numerous small earthquakes, and several days before it struck, the Commission had apparently provided advice based on the information available to them that although a major earthquake was possible, it was unlikely. They were charged with providing inaccurate information about the earthquake crisis, and this week, on 22nd October they were convicted of manslaughter. They have been sentenced to six years in jail, as well as being required to pay the huge costs of the court case and compensation.
The seven convicted are:
• Franco Barberi, Head of Serious Risks Commission
• Enzo Boschi, former President of the National Institute of Geophysics
• Giulio Selvaggi, Director of National Earthquake Centre
• Gian Michele Calvi, Director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering
• Claudio Eva, Physicist
• Mauro Dolce, Director of the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office
• Bernardo De Bernardinis, former Vice-President of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department
They are clearly all eminent scientists with many years of experience in their expert fields, not novices. To charge these scientists with criminal neglect is unconscionable. The scientists did not cause the earthquakes, they could not prevent them, nor could they predict them, so how could they be guilty of manslaughter? This is a farce and they have been made scapegoats. There is a very good parallel with the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake disaster. The major destructive earthquakes could not be predicted, and the city was not evacuated even when the earthquake crisis began.
The prediction of timing, magnitude and impact of all natural hazards (e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, floods, fires, cyclones, tornados, etc) and assessment of the risks involved is extraordinarily difficult. They can only be assessed approximately, with a spectrum of scenarios, from worst case to lowest impact, being proposed. Scientists in position of responsibility give advice based on their understanding of the current circumstances and their years of experience in relevant scientific fields. However, they cannot get it exactly right every time. This is not because the technology is deficient, nor because they are incompetent or negligent, but simply because nature is extremely unpredictable in the way and when it releases its energy and the magnitude and impact of any of these events. As scientists we do the best we can in the circumstances to assist and provide advice.
The International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) therefore condemns the judgement and convictions of these seven people in Italy, and appeals to the Italian justice system and the Italian government to review and overturn the convictions and the injustice done to these scientists.
This conviction sets a terrible international precedent. It should cause all scientists employed in monitoring and advising government and civil authorities on potential natural hazards grave concern about the advice they give, and to cover all possibilities in great detail. There is also a flip side to this. What would have happened if the convicted scientists had forecast the worst-case scenario before the l’Aquila disaster, resulting in the evacuation of a half a million people of more in the region, but then nothing happened? Would they then also have been charged with providing misleading information and causing unnecessary costs to government and community?
Natural disasters are bad news for everyone – affected communities, governments, civil authorities, industry and the scientific community. The real concern now for the scientific community is that civil authorities could try to deflect attention from themselves and the relief effort after a crisis by playing the “blame game” and taking legal action against scientists for “providing inaccurate information”.
IAVCEI will make representations to the relevant authorities in Italy, including the President and Prime Minister if possible, on behalf of the volcanological and general scientific community to support the convicted scientists in their legal appeals against the convictions and sentences. We will make it clear that scientists who are providing the best advice based on the information available to them and their scientific experience, cannot be held responsible for the unpredictable outcomes of nature during major natural disasters. It will be pointed out that if the convictions are upheld this will have a huge impact in natural hazards and disaster management not only in Italy but also world wide because many, perhaps even most scientists will hence worth either decide not to take up positions of responsibility for fear of litigation, or will not give their best assessment of a situation, inclining always to over-conservative assessments. Already the current President, Vice-President and the Advisor on Volcanic Hazards (Mauro Rosi) in the current Italian Risks Commission have resigned in protest against the convictions.
International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior
Prof. Ray Cas
Dr. Joan Martí