Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Friday, 16 September 2011 17:30 UK

Scientists in the dock over L'Aquila earthquake

Watch Susan Watts' full Newsnight report

By Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight Science editor

Next week six scientists and an official go on trial in Italy for manslaughter over the earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 309 people two years ago.

This extraordinary case has attracted international attention because science itself seemed to be on trial, with the seven defendants apparently charged for failing to predict the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck on the night of 6 April 2009.

Scientists cannot yet say when an earthquake is going to happen with any precision, even in a seismically active zone. And over 5,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter supporting those on trial.

Quake damaged buildings in Onna
The earthquake was felt throughout central Italy

Yet the lawyer for one of the scientists, in an interview with Newsnight, said it is possible his client will be convicted:

"I'm afraid that like an earthquake, nothing in this case is predictable. Let's not forget, this trial is happening in L'Aquila, where the entire population has been personally affected, and awaiting a sentence that should not happen, but could happen," Marcello Milandri said.

Seismologists can assess only the probability that a quake may happen, and then with a large degree of uncertainty about its properties.

In some circumstances, they may be able to say that the likelihood of an event has gone up, to help authorities prepare for an emergency, perhaps by concentrating on particularly vulnerable buildings or sectors of the population, such as school-children.

Weighing the risks

The signatories to the letter say the authorities should focus on earthquake protection, instead of pursuing scientists in what some feel is a Galileo-style inquisition.

The Commission calmed the local population down following a number of earth tremors. After the quake, we heard people's accounts and they told us they changed their behaviour following the advice of the commission
Inspector Lorenzo Cavallo

Newsnight went to L'Aquila to find out why this case has come about.

The prosecution team said they never intended to put science on trial, that they know it is not possible to predict an earthquake.

What they are questioning is whether the six scientists and the official on trial, who together constitute Italy's Commission of Grand Risks, did their jobs properly.

That is, did they weigh up all the risks, and communicate these clearly to the authorities seeking their advice?

The local investigator, Inspector Lorenzo Cavallo, said: "The Commission calmed the local population down following a number of earth tremors. After the quake, we heard people's accounts and they told us they changed their behaviour following the advice of the commission.

"It is our duty to investigate what has been said in each case and pass it on to the legal authority."

Radon gas claims

A local journalist, Giustino Parisse, who lived in Onna, a small hamlet outside L'Aquila at the time, is one of those bringing the case.

In the weeks leading up to the major quake there had been a series of tremors. On the night of 5 April, several large shocks kept his children awake.

They were anxious, but he told them to go back to bed, that there was no need to worry, the scientists had said so.

Rescuers carrying body
The quake was the deadliest to hit Italy since 1980

His 16-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son both died in the earthquake that night, along with his father, when the family home collapsed.

He told Newsnight that people had been becoming increasingly anxious, in part because of warnings from a local nuclear scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, that raised levels of radon gas in the area suggested to him an earthquake might be imminent.

How valuable this is as an indicator is widely disputed, and most experts in this field believe it is unreliable.

At the time the head of Italy's civil protection agency, Guido Bertolaso,took the unusual step of asking his Commission of Grand Risks to fly to L'Aquila to discuss the situation.

They held a meeting that lasted only an hour or so, then the official now on trial, Bernardo de Bernadinis, who was then deputy director of the civil protection department, held a hurried press briefing, in reassuring tones.

Two of those on trial are linked to Italy's National institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).

The institute's head of public affairs, Pasquale de Santis, told Newsnight that the trial is a distraction, that seismologists have been saying since 1998 that this is a high risk area, and that people should instead be focussing on those who failed properly to enforce building codes in L'Aquila.

Funding needed

We put this to the mayor of L'Aquila, Massimo Cialente. He hopes the trial will prompt a national debate, and make it easier for him to raise the funds and support he needs to protect people against future earthquakes.

He said six days before the major quake he moved local children from a school damaged in an earlier tremor. He said he had no official budget to do that, because prevention is not a national priority.

"We closed the school and we had to transfer 500 pupils. I needed money, but I started the work without the money. If the quake did not happen I would be charged for that."

Those bringing the case say the people of L'Aquila have a right to know what happened. Many hope the trial will bring some peace of mind.

But some of those who signed the letter of support told Newsnight they fear the case will dissuade scientists from leaving their labs to engage with politicians and the public.

John McCloskey, professor of geophysics at Ulster University, said these scientists have spent their lives producing some of the most sophisticated seismic maps in the world.

He said it is an "outrage" that they are now on trial for manslaughter, adding that he signed the letter because "their peril is our peril".

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