By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 05/02/2016

Convicting scientists for manslaughter following the L’Aquila earthquake wasn’t “science on trial” but a failing of communication, one of the seismologists says.

Giulio Selvaggi spent nearly a year of his life in an Italian courtroom as he and five other scientists were tried for the manslaughter of 33 victims of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Their eventual conviction had a chilling effect on the international scientific community. Though it has since been overturned by a supreme court – Selvaggi takes a positive outlook, at least he has never been to jail – five civil suits remain that could take years to process.

Selvaggi, who spoke in Wellington on Thursday as part of the Royal Society’s Talking Science series, said what was incredible about the trial was that it happened in an earthquake-prone country.

Parts of L’Aquila’s story bears striking resemblance to the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, particularly the local identity who claimed to be able to predict earthquakes (Giampaolo Giuliani in L’Aquila, Ken Ring in New Zealand).

Giuliani’s “predictions” prior to the April 6 earthquake, following a swarm of smaller quakes around L’Aquila, was inciting panic in the region. That lead to the High Risk Committee being convened on March 31, which included Selvaggi as an advising scientist (he was the head of Italy’s National Earthquake Centre at the time). Selvaggi was adamant that he wasn’t pressured to give the committee a reassuring statement.

Their conclusion: a major earthquake in the short term was unlikely but could not be ruled out.

Mere days later, in the early hours of April 6, 2009, the magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck, killing 309 people.

But it wasn’t what came out of that meeting that led to the trial, it was an interview (now infamous) that committee member Bernardo De Bernardinis gave before the meeting. De Bernardinis told the reporter that the swarm of earthquakes was “discharging energy” making a bigger quake less likely (incorrect, there is no known link between the timing of small quakes and larger ones).

The reporter finished on a high note: so people should relax and go and have a glass of wine? Yes, De Bernardinis replied, and it was this flippant remark that was broadcast after the committee meeting, giving the impression it was a summary of what had been discussed.

On the basis that this reassurance led people to change the habit of leaving their homes when earthquakes struck, Selvaggi, De Bernardinis and five others were charged with the manslaughter of 33 people. Selvaggi said those 33 could be proved to have heard the interview and thus been affected by the apparent reassurance.

Though they were found guilty in the 2011/2012 trial, the six scientists were acquitted on appeal in 2014 and in November 2015 the supreme court officially overturned the convictions. But De Bernardinis’ two-year sentence was upheld, though Selvaggi said he would not serve jail time as in Italy any conviction under three years was not served in prison.

Bad buildings and lacking education

Selvaggi said the earthquake highlighted substandard building codes in Italy. The country boomed in the 1960s before building codes took seismic risk into account. The country’s population, rather than being clustered in a few large cities, is spread across the countryside. That means wherever an earthquake happens, there will be a substantial population affected. So while the risk of earthquakes is no higher than elsewhere in Europe, the numbers of people potentially affected is much greater, he said.

And though building codes have been improved since 2009, Selvaggi said many of the buildings that collapsed in L’Aquila were illegally built anyway. Fifteen buildings collapsed in L’Aquila, killing 137 people. That was only 1 percent of the town’s buildings, but Selvaggi said all 15 collapsed because of bad design or maintenance.

There had been attempts to hold builders to account, but because the collapsed buildings were so old these attempts were unsuccessful, he said. Funds have been diverted to allow retrofitting for earthquake-prone buildings, including homes, though Selvaggi said far more money would be required to extend this across the country.

So while the trial was widely condemned internationally as “science on trial”, Selvaggi says it highlighted poor communication and education about earthquake risk in Italy. That “poisoned fruit” will likely cause distrust of scientists – Selvaggi said L’Aquila residents are still suspicious – which won’t help educate people about how to best prepare and protect themselves against earthquakes.

Selvaggi implored the international science community to create “position papers” to discuss topics like L’Aquila and responsibility behind scientific advice before issues arose.

He also praised New Zealand for its earthquake preparedness and said spending a week in Wellington he had been impressed by risk communication especially around earthquake-prone buildings.

The next Talking Science session will be on February 9: Navigating climate change: communication and politics.

Featured image: Wikimedia CC, a government office in L’Aquila damaged in the 2009 earthquake.