An earthquake hit L'Aquila, a town in the Abruzzo region of Italy, in 2009, and more than 300 people died. Soon thereafter, says Popular Science's Juliet Lapidos, the citizens of L'Aquila requested an investigation into a panel of researchers and civil servants that had previously concluded that a major seismic event was unlikely, despite a series of small tremors that had occurred there. Those researchers are now being charged with manslaughter and could get as much as 15 years in prison. "The L'Aquila judge who determined that the case could go to court said the defendants provided 'imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information' and effectively 'thwarted the activities designed to protect the public,'" Lapidos reports.
Many researchers are saying that holding these seismologists criminally responsible for what happened will have a "chilling effect" on science, Lapidos adds. "If months from now, a court finds the scientists guilty, that would be unfair for them and set a dangerous precedent for panelists on future advisory committees, who might feel reluctant to offer any opinion at all," she says. "The ongoing trial should draw researchers' attention to the benefits of declaiming their own uncertainty, and it should remind the rest of us of the chasm between factual evidence and practical advice."