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University of Ulster Expert Condemns Italian 'Quake Trial

5 October 2011

A University of Ulster earthquake scientist  has joined an international protest campaign after the Italian authorities put six seismologists on trial for manslaughter following a quake that devastated the city of L'Aquila in 2009.

The court case, which opened last week and adjourned until October 1, has gripped the attention of research scientists around the world. Media reports have likened it to science being put on trial.

University of Ulster earthquake expert Professor McCloskey, who is Professor of Geophysics, is among 5,000 scientists who have signed a letter to the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the defendants. They say the authorities should focus on earthquake protection rather than pursuing the scientists through the courts.

The Ulster academic says the trial and possible convictions, which could result in 15-year jail terms, could torpedo researchers’ willingness to share life-saving knowledge with governments and civil protection agencies around the world. 

“Some of these defendants are outstanding scientists who have given great service to Italy and who are responsible for the Italian Seismic Hazard Map – which is of a standard that is as good as any you’ll find anywhere in the world. That map points out that L’Aquila was a hotspot of earthquake hazard. This is a really dangerous prosecution which could, by making scientists less likely to engage with policy makers, actually cost lives in future earthquakes,” he said.

The six accused and an official charged along with them are members of Italy’s Serious Risks Commission. They assessed the risks at L’Aquila after low-level tremors sparked concern in the months before the 6.3 quake struck killing 309 people.

“They didn’t get the science wrong,” Professor McCloskey said. “Earthquake prediction is not possible so the call that they made was the only one they could have made. The signals they were working with indicated only a tiny increase in the risk of a big earthquake. Such increases happen all the time in Italy without being followed by an earthquake. In retrospect we can all possibly learn lessons from the way some of the advice was expressed but at present science cannot change the basic message. This case shows the importance of getting building codes right and then implementing them rigorously. Perhaps the Italian courts might look more closely at why so many buildings collapsed in a known earthquake hotspot rather than conducting a witch-hunt against the very people who identified the risk in the first place.”

A week before the earthquake, according to media reports, the seven defendants issued a reassuring statement while also saying that it was not possible to predict whether a stronger quake would occur.

The prosecution questions whether the scientists weighed up all the risks adequately and spelt them out clearly to those who had sought their advice.

Defence lawyers, echoing the common view of seismology experts across the globe, argue that no-one can predict where and when a quake will strike. They can assess only whether seismic activity points to greater or lesser probability, or risk.

Professor McCloskey is among the UK's 100 most influential scientists, according to the inaugural Eureka 100 list published last year in The Times newspaper. He and his colleagues in the Geophysics Research Group at Ulster have been pioneers in earthquake research, with a particular focus of their work concentrating on the identification of regions most susceptible to earthquakes.

His specialist region is Sumatra in Indonesia. His research and advice have highlighted the need for governments in threatened areas to increase population survival prospects by implementing community protection measures and enforcing rigorous building codes.

He is concerned that the trial, combined with misunderstanding of the role of scientific research, could endanger developing research co-operation that academics are able to offer to governments and agencies.

 “This trial is very worrying because we are trying to bring incomplete and uncertain science to bear in helping people. We do have information and research that will help people but it is fraught with difficulty in terms of getting people to understand the incomplete and probabilistic nature of all of this.

 “With the best will in the world, and even with doing things as rigorously as possible, we will get things wrong, that’s for sure. If that results in the potential for us being put in jail, then scientists will be much less likely to get involved and we will just stay in the world of academic research and publishing our findings in academic journals. It would be a real setback.”