An Italian court yesterday sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict an earthquake in 2009, which left more than 300 people dead. Reggie DesRoches, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, weighs in on this controversial decision and impact on future scientific research.
The recent conviction of the six scientists from Italy for “failing” to give adequate warning of an earthquake that struck L’aquila, Italy, in 2009 sets a dangerous precedent and will likely discourage scientists and engineers from offering advice that can help communities around the world. One of the convicted scientists, Dr. Gian Michele Calvi is a colleague and friend, and is considered an international leader in earthquake-resistant design. My heart goes out to him and his family.
Everyone knows that earthquakes cannot be predicted, and if they could, they could not be prevented. Small tremors are not a precursor to a larger earthquake. The best way to prevent earthquake disasters is not by trying to predict earthquakes. It is by making sure structures are built so that they do not collapse during earthquakes. On this account, it is the Italian government that failed by not ensuring that people were living in safe homes.
Italy is one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. L’aquila alone has a history of frequent earthquakes that have destroyed the town. There is no doubt that the ruling will change the willingness of scientific experts to provide opinions about hazards and risks. This is a sad day for all scientists and engineers in the earthquake engineering community.
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