If your colleagues were sentenced to jail for failing to predict the future, you'd probably be upset too. On Tuesday, some of Italy's top scientists resigned from the government's disaster agency to protest the manslaughter conviction of seven geological experts for failing to predict the devastating earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009. As we noted yesterday, scientists across the world were appalled at the idea of holding scientists criminally responsible for failing to accurately predict the severity of future earthquakes, something that is notoriously difficult to do. Now the Italian government will have fewer scientists to call on to handle disasters.
The biggest name to clock out is one of Italy's top phyicists, Luciano Maiami. A former head of the particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva, Maiami is currently the head of Italy's top disaster body, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, which the seven convicted scientists were members. They received sentences of six years in prison for what prosecutors said were "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory" statements about the dangers of the quake. Maiami joined several other top scientists by declaring the verdict a "big mistake," and said he resigned because "there aren't the conditions to work serenely."
"These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests, they had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake," he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "It is impossible to produce serious, professional and disinterested advice under this mad judicial and media pressure. This sort of thing doesn't happen anywhere else in the world." In no uncertain terms, he said, "This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state."
Agence France Presse reports that Mauro Dolce, head of the Civil Protection's seismic risk office, also resigned, and the rest of the committee will soon do the same. One of those members, Roberto Vinci, said he resigned "to show support for those who, perhaps having reacted with a certain naivety and certainly under great pressure, have been accused of manslaughter."
If you need a good barometer for the level of international scientific outrage brimming over the conviction, CNN has a good expert roundup here. But Roger Musson, head of seismic hazard and archives at the British Geological Survey, pretty much summed up the angst in his tweet: "It's chilling that people can be jailed for giving a scientific opinion in the line of their work."