Mon, Feb 06, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Risk communication works only when people are informed

By Joel Cohen

Few people outside Italy are aware that six seismologists and a government official are on trial in the small city of L’Aquila, but the story has implications for scientists, engineers, administrators and legal systems far beyond Italy’s borders.

L’Aquila was largely destroyed by earthquakes in 1461 and 1703. The city was rebuilt, eventually grew to more than 73,000 inhabitants, and remained stable for more than 300 years — until October 2008, when tremors began again. From Jan. 1, 2009 to April 5, 2009, 304 additional tremors were reported.

The Italian National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes of their meeting, National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology president Enzo Boschi was asked if the tremors were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703.

“It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded,” he replied.

On April 6, 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck L’Aquila and nearby towns, killing more than 300 people and injuring more than 1,500. The quake also destroyed about 20,000 buildings, temporarily displacing another 65,000 people.

More than a year later, in July 2010, prosecutor Fabio Picuti charged the commission members with manslaughter and negligence for failing to warn the public of the impending risk. The trial began in September last year and is expected to last for months, if not years.

After Picuti made the charges public in June 2010, Science executive publisher Alan Leshner sent an open letter of protest to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Charges against these scientists are both unfair and naive ... [T]here is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster,” he wrote.

The American Geophysical Union and thousands of other scientists also objected.

“I’m not crazy. I know they cannot predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they did not predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila,” Picuti reportedly responded.

In 1989, a US National Research Council report titled Improving Risk Communication recommended that one-way communication from experts to non-experts be replaced with an “interactive process of exchange of information and opinion.” The report suggested that risk communication is successful only if those involved are satisfied that they are adequately informed about the relevant issues, given the limits of available knowledge. Yet such information exchange remains a problem — and not only in Italy — more than 20 years later.

The interactions between science, technology and law are growing increasingly complex. As science and technologies evolve, risk assessments and the dialogue between scientists and governments must adapt. Both sides must continually determine, before disaster strikes, whether existing laws provide scientists and administrators with clear, realistic standards for their analyses and public communications. If they do not, the best qualified scientists and administrators might be frightened away.

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