Stephen Hall, a freelance science writer and science-communication teacher, received the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 5 December 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. Hall was honored for the article “At Fault?” published 15 September 2011 in Nature. The article examines the legal, personal, and political repercussions from a 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy for seismologists who had attempted to convey seismic risk assessments to the public. The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the medieval town and caused more than 300 deaths. Six scientists and one government official were subsequently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for inadequately assessing and mischaracterizing the risks to city residents, despite the inexact nature of seismic risk assessment. The Sullivan award is for work published with a deadline pressure of more than 1 week.
The editors at Nature congratulate Stephen S. Hall for winning the 2012 Walter Sullivan Award for excellence in science journalism for his feature story “At Fault” (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/full/477264a.html).
Stephen’s feature is an exemplary example of thorough reporting and compelling narrative writing. In the story, he asked how a devastating 2009 earthquake in the Italian city of L’Aquila, which killed more than 300 people, led to a group of scientists being put on trial for manslaughter.
At the time, the charges were internationally condemned as a baseless attempt to prosecute scientists over a failure to predict an impending earthquake. However, by visiting L’Aquila and talking to some of the survivors and scientists involved, Stephen revealed the real issue at the heart of this story. The survivors did not expect government-appointed scientists to predict the earthquake; they were accusing them of failing to evaluate and communicate the risks of a major earthquake.
In his story, Stephen artfully describes how a series of shocks in early 2009 built fear and tension in the community and how, the week before the major shock, residents heard reassurance from public officials. He describes the devastation caused by the earthquake, the betrayal and anger felt by people whose relatives were killed, and the scientists’ arguments that they were accurate in assessing the risks. Stephen goes on to ask whether this battle could be played out more often in a future riddled with climate-related extreme events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Will scientists be held accountable for their ability to predict these risks too?
In short, Stephen’s story had everything that a piece of stellar science journalism should have: voice, drama, science, intellectual challenge, and controversy. Stephen should also receive great credit for his reporting, in which he negotiated a foreign country, language, and legal system.
The story is one of the best feature stories that I have had the pleasure to edit, it provoked a great response from our readers, and it was an honor for Nature to publish it.
—Helen Pearson, Chief Features Editor, Nature, London
The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake was, and continues to be, a tragedy of enormous proportions. It was obviously a tragedy for the 309 people who perished in the event and for their loved ones, along with the many thousands rendered homeless by the event. It continues to be a civic tragedy for this medieval jewel of a city in the heart of the Abruzzo, which is still crippled nearly four years after the event. And it has been a tragic episode for the scientific community, which has seen seven Italian colleagues convicted of manslaughter and facing serious jail time if their appeals are unsuccessful.
When Judge Marco Billi announced his verdict last October, the L’Aquila trial became a lightning rod for intense criticism within and beyond the geophysics community. Editorials in the scientific and lay press denounced the decision, and scientific experts declared that the court case would have a chilling effect on the ability (and willingness) of scientists to convey risk to the public. Many commentators ridiculed the verdict as an inexplicable act by a provincial court that essentially convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. Some likened the trial to a modern-day version of the persecution of Galileo.
The facts in the case, as documented not only in the account in Nature that is being recognized by the AGU for this year’s Sullivan Award but in a subsequent story in Science, suggest that other important issues are at the heart of the L’Aquila case, issues of immense ethical and legal concern to scientists everywhere.
One paramount issue involves the proper communication of scientific information (including probabilistic risk) to members of the general public. The L’Aquila trial heard testimony suggesting that representatives of Italy’s Big Risks Committee made scientifically inaccurate statements that may have influenced the behavior of residents in the hours preceding the main seismic event. Whether or not this constitutes a crime, the scientific community can take little comfort in the notion that incorrect scientific statements to the public may have contributed, even indirectly, to civilian behavior that ultimately had tragic consequences.
News reports have also suggested that Italy’s cabinet-level Department of Civil Protection convened a special session of the Big Risks Committee in L’Aquila a week prior to the April 6 earthquake in part to calm and reassure the local population, which had been unnerved by unofficial predictions of an imminent seismic event. The use of an expert scientific panel by government officials for essentially public relations purposes highlights the tensions that can occur when policy makers use scientific experts for goals other than purely technical risk assessment.
The L’Aquila episode is a tragic but illuminating opportunity for scientists to think about the best way to communicate risk to the public. It is also an opportunity to rethink the often tense boundary between rigorous scientific risk assessment and broader public policy goals. In an era of climate change, extreme weather events, and the encroachment of human populations in ever greater proximity to active volcanoes and high-risk earthquake zones, scientists and policy makers need to confront the growing challenge of communicating risk clearly and effectively to the public.
–Stephen Hall, Freelance Journalist, Brooklyn, New York