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Scientific Malpractice: A New Risk for Scientists?

The judge who last year convicted seven scientists and engineers of manslaughter–and sentenced them to 6 years in prison–for the advice they gave in advance of the 2009 Italian earthquake explained his verdict in a statement released last week. Edwin Cartlidge wrote about the decision on Monday in ScienceInsider, our sister publication. He also wrote a News Focus article on the trial last October.

The judge’s decision raises a frightening but seemingly reasonable prospect: that, under certain circumstances, scientists may be held accountable for placing PR considerations ahead of their basic responsibilities as scientists. It’s unclear whether the seven actually did so, but that is the judge’s claim.

In the statement, Judge Marco Billi says that the seven were not convicted for failing to predict the earthquake–which he says would be impossible–but of failing to failing to do their duty as members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. Specifically, Billi claimed, the scientists analyzed the risk of a major quake in a “superficial, approximate and generic” way, and that they were willing participants in a “media operation” to reassure the public:

Prosecutors in the case had requested 4-year prison sentences. In going beyond that term, Billi says that “the guilt of the defendants is certainly severe” and adds that their guilt is accentuated by what he describes as the “conscious and uncritical adherence to the will of the head of the civil protection department,” Guido Bertolaso, to carry out what Bertolaso had called a “media operation,” which meant that the experts spoke directly with the public rather than via the civil protection department. Billi says that each of the seven commission members played an important role in the meeting and that they worked together as a collective unit.
There was, in the judge’s view, a contradiction between the claims of the
civil protection department and the applicable science–and according to him, the scientists chose the wrong side. The judge seems to be saying that the group’s responsibilities as
scientists–to be impartial arbiters of evidence–trumps their role as loyal public servants and Organization Men.

I’m not in a position to judge whether the seven scientists did what the judge said they did, but in light of much of the media coverage of the decision, the judge’s thinking seems surprisingly sober. In any case, it demonstrates that under certain circumstances the law may hold scientists liable for the quality of their advice, and suggests that they may have a legal, professional responsibility to put evidence and sober analysis before expediency. The decision derives, apparently, from the scientists’ failure to meet official responsibilities as members of a government committee–yet there are many other circumstances in which scientists are called on to deliver advice. As scientists take on more roles in setting policy and advising governments on risk, it’s easy to envision other circumstances in which they could be held criminally liable for the quality of their work.