The scientific community's public reaction to the conviction and sentencing of seven Italian scientists was immediate, passionate and, too large extent, ill-informed. The after-shock waves were predictable; the Twitter feeds, blogs and press releases vitriolic. There was unanimity that we were witnessing a "modern world of litigation" and a "blame game" with vulnerable "scapegoats". It was noted that the case showed "very vividly how the media, and thus certain fractions of society, can misinterpret… scientific statements…and misuse them for their own purposes". It was predicted that subjecting scientists to criminal charges may:
•have very adverse effects on academic research:
•prevent the free exchange of ideas that is essential for progress in science; and
•discourage scientists from participating in matters of great public importance.
The real issues raised by L'Aquila must be identified, assessed and confronted without delay and we are responding to the following statement from the IAVCEI.
"Scientists involved in natural hazard assessment must clarify with their employer or the organization they are accountable or report to, just exactly what is expected of them, what their level of responsibility is, and what the chain of command and reporting protocols are between them as scientists and the civil and government authorities they work with. Without establishing such an agreed…understanding, such scientists are vulnerable and quite frankly, in the modern world of litigation, they would be foolish."
We suggest that there is no need for scientists to withdraw their irreplaceable services provided they adopt self-protection strategies that have been used and perfected by other at-risk professionals over many years.
When condemning the prosecuting authorities, the scientific community showed impressive solidarity. Only time will tell whether it can also craft a protocol, which will protect vulnerable scientists in an increasingly open and litigious society – one frequented by blame-shifting officials and watched by a voracious media.
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