L’Aquila: Why you should be interested in public understanding of science

Yesterday I was at a very interesting discussion on ‘Open Access Publishing’. This could be a blog post in itself, but I’ll keep this brief 1. Because Fabiana would be far better to do it, and 2. Because it’s really just a lead-in to what I want to say about the l’Aquila earthquake and the ridiculous conviction of seven people (mostly scientists, including two physicists)  for manslaughter over these events.

The historical scientific journal system goes like this:

1. Author(s) writes an article and submits it to a journal. They get paid nothing for doing this.

2. Article gets sent on by an editor (who is usually paid nothing) to referees. Referees are paid nothing.

3. After to-ing and fro-ing between author, editor and referees, the article is (hopefully, from the author’s point of view) accepted for publication.

4. Journal production staff (who are paid) turn it into a pretty-looking article and stick it on a website and charge vast quantities of money to libraries or individuals for access.

In short, the journals rake in the money at everyone else’s expense. MOREOVER, the general public – that is, the taxpayers, who fund a large chunk of the scientific research that is done, can’t afford to see it.

The open access system, however, goes against this. Here, the author pays the cost of production, and the article is free for everyone.

There was a dissenting voice in the audience though. His argument ran something like this. I like the current system. It serves me well. As an author, I can get my work published for free. I don’t care that it isn’t available to the public, because the public don’t understand it – it’s targeted at other people in my discipline who can get access through university libraries.

Right, Dr Smith [not his real name], this is why you should care about public access and public understanding of science. Because it is a scientifically inept jury that has just convicted seven individuals of the manslaughter of 300 people over their role in the 2009 l’Aquila earthquake. It is a scientifically inept prosecution service that chose to pursue charges against these individuals. Governments throughout the world are not generally well populated with scientists and, moreover, they are elected by people who are not generally well educated in science. If we want to prevent the Italian insanity becoming more widespread (Fellow sci-blogger Michael Edmonds has already given another example from Russia), we need to make sure we address public understanding of science, and, part of this is public access to science and scientists.

Specifically on the l’Aquila case: the prosecution took the line that, while the seismologists didn’t CAUSE the earthquake (I’m glad they got that bit right) they were over-reassuring in their statement of risk – along the lines of that a major earthquake was unlikely but not impossible.   But what can someone employed to talk about risk do? Based on the evidence they had, that was the conclusion they reached. What were they meant to say? Advise that the whole of Italy be evacuated permanently because of its earthquake risk? (And we might as well advise the end of civilization in Japan, NZ, California, Chile etc and tell all residents to find new homes elsewhere in the world). If they’d advised an evacuation, and then no large earthquake came, one would reckon that they’d now be being sued for loss of earnings to the local economy. It is ludicrous.

The inevitable outcome of this prosecution is now unfolding. Luciano Maiani, the head of the Serious Risks Commission in Italy (and former director of CERN) has resigned, saying it is impossible to work under such circumstances. The vice-president and emeritus president have also resigned. The quote from Prof Maiani (which I’ve taken from the BBC report on this) says that the situation is

 "… incompatible with running the commission’s work in a calm and efficient manner and with its role of giving high level advice to the organs of the state,"

Quite. What this prosecution does is remove the willingness of scientists to advise governments – or anyone else –  on science. And that will set the world back decades.  Prof Gluckman (the NZ government’s chief science adviser), are you listening? This needs an overwhelming response from the New Zealand science community.





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