Day one of the trial of several Italian seismologists facing manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to predict an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila in April 2009 kicked off today.

Nature has been following the situation closely and this piece gives great background on the situation the scientists have found themselves in.

This is the interesting bit – what can we expect the impact to be on science as the trial plays out?

“Although the outcome of the trial may not be known for months, if not years, the events leading up to the earthquake are already being viewed as a sobering case study in risk assessment and public communication – a scenario that might easily be replayed in a future that includes not just ‘conventional’ natural disasters (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis), but also extreme weather events (such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and droughts) perhaps cooked up by climate change.
The trial has already had a chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to share their expertise with the public.”

Scientists in New Zealand are naturally watching the case closely and no doubt, in some cases, reflecting on how scientific information on risk from natural hazards is disseminated and interpreted by the public here. Here’s the letter of support for the Italian seismologists many New Zealand scientists joined others around the world in signing.

Here’s what Dr Mark Quigley of the University of Canterbury had to say about the trial:

’To me this highlights the importance of effective science communication; it is important to provide the public with probabilistic earthquake ‘forecasts’ but it is equally important to contextualize these assessments (e.g., earthquake probabilities in the midst of an aftershock sequence compared to ‘background’ probabilities) and to provide sufficient information on the methodology and limitations of these forecasts.

’And finally, it is important to emphasize to the public that no precursory phenomena (e.g., gas release, micro-earthquakes, thermal anomalies, animal behavior, strain rate changes, electrical phenomena, lunar phenomena) have produced a successful and reproducible short-term earthquake prediction scheme. This is not for lack of trying, and these methods should continue to undergo scientific testing and scrutiny. However, the holy grail of earthquake prediction, as defined through specification of a defined geographic region, depth, time window, and magnitude range, remains elusive at present.

I couldn’t agree with him more. It would set a pretty dangerous example to have the experts we rely on for scientific advice made criminally liable if the advice they give is wrong or ineffective, particularly in areas of science that are incredibly uncertain. We listen to the scientists because we respect them and their track record and fund them to do the best research possible, knowing that in many areas of science certainty is elusive. Criminal and civil cases against, say,  doctors accused of medical misadventure are a different deal completely.