Reply to "AGU Statement: Investigation of Scientists and Officials in l'Aquila, Italy, Is Unfounded"

AGU (American Geophysical Union) statement [1] on the investigation of Italian scientists and officials in regard to l'Aquila earthquake appears to be a noble attempt not only to protect these individuals, but also those AGU members that are involved in similar hazard and risk assessments. But in the long run this statement not only damages AGU by misleading its membership as to the responsibilities of indicted individuals, but also sends a wrong message to the Italian scientific practice that needs an urgent reorganization. The statement published in EOS on 13 July 2010 assumes that the indicted individuals are innocent from their scientific inability to predict earthquakes, but neglects to explain what their scientific responsibilities are and why they may be also guilty from properly exercising their social responsibility. The statement invites AGU members to support it, because "the charges may also harm international efforts to understand and mitigate associated risk". And it invites all of us to pass this information to our colleagues if we support it. I, for one, see serious flaws in involving a scientific organization in a judge and jury business and wish to elaborate on these flaws.

In Italy, the members of High Risk Commission or Commissione Grandi Rischi (Commission, for short) [2] have an almost god-like prestige in the sense that they are perceived by the media as being the only individuals capable of commenting on any and all aspects of natural hazard research and management. These individuals are not only used by the Italian politicians to discharge their responsibilities when it comes to managing the risks associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and other natural hazards, but also, in return, are charged with the control of all research resources in these areas. When a disaster strikes, each party blames the other and no one is guilty of anything. The Commission individuals wield excessive power in deciding directly or indirectly what natural hazards research projects are worth supporting and who merits prestigious research or faculty position in Italian state organizations.

If one accepts public funds and has the ultimate responsibility of deciding how to manage them (either by supporting scientific research proposals or otherwise) and is playing the double role of a scientist and a politician, one is also responsible for both the scientific and social consequences of his or her actions. Let us not forget that the Commission members are also responsible for drafting and promoting the unreliable Vesuvius Evacuation Plan [3], and as a consequence will be also accountable for the consequences in the Vesuvius area when the Neapolitan volcanoes erupt, because they are directly or indirectly responsible for politicizing this plan and suppressing the development of alternative volcanic risk management technologies that could save many lives and better protect the personal and public properties [4].

The indicted individuals should, therefore, respond to l'Aquila prosecutors for both their scientific and their social responsibility of not advising the elected officials to maintain the earthquake alert level, which to the contrary might have saved some of 308 victims on 6 April 2009 when a large magnitude earthquake shook the town. They should also answer to the charges by some seismologists why they did not utilize all available earthquake assessment tools in l'Aquila case [5]. It is wrong of Commission members to seek protection from the scientists who are unaware of how the earthquake and volcanic risk management is conducted in Italy, for doing this is to take the international scientific communities for a ride and, in the long run, damage the communitiesí prestige of being impartial arbiters in natural hazard and risk assessments. Contrary to what the AGU statement asserts, the AGU membership has much to lose by covering up politicized scientists, and risks inflicting a long lasting damage to this organization by supporting the status quo of seismic hazard assessments that may be inappropriate. When Vesuvius erupts there will be hard questions asked who covered up whom and I am certain that the great majority of AGU members and editors of scientific magazines do not want to be associated with personal injuries and loss of life. The AGU statement on investigation of scientists and officials in l'Aquila is therefore misguided, like Nature's article published on line on 22 June 2010 when it writes about the international solidarity behind the indicted Italian scientists [6]. I guess that the thousands of scientists who have not signed the INGV letter and keep silent or do not criticize these documents do not qualify as viable scientists and that the only ones that count are the INGV dependents and those being misguided in thinking that somehow the Italian seismic management practice parallels theirs and that they will suffer if the former is accused of malpractice.

The indicted individuals failed to recommend to l'Aquila politicians to maintain the earthquake alert prior to the large quake of 6 April 2009. The district prosecutor issued the "manslaughter, personal injuries, and cooperation in crime" charges because of the documented split within the Italian scientists on the appropriateness of Commission's actions. It is up to Aquila prosecutors to judge the appropriateness of these actions and not the job of international scientific organizations to declare the innocence of Italian scientists just "because the risk of litigation will discourage scientists and officials from advising their government or even working in the field of seismology and seismic risk assessment". If with AGU"s and other scientific organizations help the Commission is acquitted from any wrong doings in l'Aquila this will have long-lasting repercussions on volcanic and seismic risk management in Italy and elsewhere, for the message will be clear: There is no need to replace the current natural hazard and risk assessment methodologies in Italy and elsewhere and no need to clean up many politicized earth science research establishments. What a loss for the science, for Vesuvians in particular, and of all of those independent thinkers who will be forced to go abroad or change fields to survive.

Some experts in seismology have recently suggested to the AGU management to approve a session on the earthquake prediction issues during the winter meeting in San Francisco, but this was rejected by AGU [7]. During the IAVCEI meeting in Rome in 1995 Giuseppe Luongo and I proposed a debate on Vesuvius Evacuation Plan, but this was also rejected. And I am certain that these are not the isolated cases. If we want to keep calling ourselves scientists and want to produce useful science for the public, we should not be afraid to confront our colleagues on professional matters. Perhaps we should start giving out in geophysical sciences the professional research licenses so that a "professional scientist/geophysicist", like a "professional engineer", having earned through the practice and theory such a license, is constrained to appear in a court of law and thus respond for his or her professional practice. As members of serious professional organizations we cannot tolerate the scientific malpractice and censorship, for if we cannot critically and timely discuss the scientific issues in professional meetings and publications, where else can we discuss this?

Science can only progress in an objective environment without the scientific censorship, and without those scientific organizations and publications whose management polices place obstacles to the scientific and thus social progress. AGU was misled in believing that the natural hazard assessment and management in Italy is a blueprint for the rest of the world. This is far from the facts, for those who have not worked in Italy on these issues and have not dealt with the loss from independent thinkers do not really understand the gravity of the situation. AGU should stick to the disciplined and coordinated effort in promoting scientific research where all geophysical knowledge could be freely and timely debated, without worrying about offending some misguided colleagues. The pursuit of scientific progress was, we recall, the major stimulus leading to the foundation of the Royal Society, for what is the use of scientific organizations or printing scientific progress without debating all possible drawbacks of such a progress? The more heated the debate the more progressive the research will be, and the more enduring a scientific organization will remain. I hope that AGU will continue to maintain its high scientific standards and that it will discourage unethical individuals from taking advantage of its scientific prestige.

[1] AGU Statement: Investigation of scientists and officials in l'Aquila, Italy, is unfounded. EOS, 91, 13 July 2010, p. 248. Also promoted through the Volcano Listserv on 22 June 2010.

[2] Members of Commissione grandi rischi on 31 March 2009 were: Franco Barberi, Bernando De Bernardinis, Enzo Boschi, Gian Michele Calvi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Giulio Selvaggi.

[3] Vesuvius Evacuation Plan. Evacuation Plan for the Vesuvius Area

[4] Dobran, F. VESUVIUS 2000: Toward Security and Prosperity Under the Shadow of Vesuvius. In VESUVIUS: Education, Security and Prosperity, Chapter 1, ed. F. Dobran, Elsevier, 2006.

[5] Maulchin, J. Appeal letter for "Indicted Italian Scientists". E-mail communication,, 22 June 2010.

[6] Nosengo, N. Italy puts seismology in the dock. Published online 22 June 1010. Nature, 465, 992, 2010.

[7] Internet communications, including those through Volcano Listserv, dated 20 and 22 June 2010, and 6-10 July 2010.

Flavio Dobran, P.E., Ph.D.

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