22/10/2012 15:05 BST | Updated 23/10/2012 05:07 BST

L'Aquila Earthquake Trial: UK Seismologists React With Dismay At Jailing Of Italian Scientists

The British scientific community has reacted with dismay at the jailing of six Italian scientists and an ex-government official over the deadly 2009 L'Aquila earthquake.

The experts were all sentenced to six years in prison on multiple manslaughter charges by Judge Marco Billi on Monday afternoon.

More than 300 people were killed in the 2009 earthquake

The prosecution argued that the defendants gave "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors that preceded the quake were a sign that a major disaster was about to strike.

UK experts, however, are outraged at the verdict with one describing it as a "travesty".

Richard Walters of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences said: "I am very saddened to hear about the verdict. The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.

"I have read the translated minutes of the meeting of the Grand Commission of High Risks on the 31 March, and the scientific information that was conveyed within that meeting was not inexact, incomplete or contradictory. It was clear, measured and scientifically accurate.

"The prosecution have not distinguished between the different defendants' actions or words. To be prosecuted for other people's miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty."

Judge Marco Billi reads the verdicts against the scientists at the court on Monday

Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University said there was a lesson to be learnt from the 'bizarre' ruling.

"This bizarre verdict will chill anyone who gives scientific advice, and I hope they are freed on appeal," he said. "The lesson for me is that scientific advisors must try and retain control over how their work is communicated, and are properly trained to engage with the public."

Dr David Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Open University, also voiced his support of the scientists following the decision.

He said: "I hope they will appeal. Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. The best estimate at the time was that the low level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game.”

Dr Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey was equally shocked at the verdicts.

He said: “This is a very sad business indeed. These are people I know, who were doing their best to give an accurate account of large earthquakes. It seems to be wrong that they should be prosecuted for offering scientific advice to the best of their ability.”

"It will certainly make scientists less free in speaking out where perhaps their expertise are really needed.

"It’s not about them failing to predict earthquakes, it’s not about anything those six scientists said at the forum which they were asked to give their opinion, what those six scientists said was correct and any seismologists would support it.”

Professor Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, also backed the Italian experts.


Italian Experts Sentenced For Failing To Predict Earthquake

He said: "Assuming that negligence and malpractice are not factors here then the prosecution, and now sentences, of the Italian seismologists comes as a considerable surprise.

"In seismology, as with many other branches of the pure and applied sciences, opinions are derived from observables and the application of experience and training. It is never the case that predictions are completely without uncertainty and any scientist will make this clear as well as an estimation of how accurate such predictions are.

“If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.

"It is worth pointing out that many of the valuable contributions made by scientists such as penicillin, radiobiology and the like have stemmed from the enquiring mind rather than absolute certainty of success.”