Jailing of Italian Seismologists Has Repercussions for Communicating Science

The global scientific community was left reeling this week by an Italian court’s decision to sentence a group of six seismologists to six years in jail for providing false assurances to the public prior to the earthquake that hit the town of L’Aquila in 2009. Judge Marco Billi’s ruling has provoked fear and suggests a dangerous precedent in Italy for scientists involved in hazard prediction. Good science has always involved itself in open rigorous debate. If scientists can’t express their opinions for fear of ending up in a court room, what implications will this have for fostering a culture that respects and invests in science?

Domestically we need to consider what this means for Irish science.  While it is unlikely that a parallel case would develop here, some serious questions face the science community when venturing into the area of communication.  Here are five questions to ask before engaging in external communication of research developments;

1.    Why now?

2.    What are you trying to achieve?

3.    Who will it affect?

4.    How will you communicate the research responsibly?

5.    What is the best way to communicate this story?

Science provides a rich and diverse source of content for communicators, commentators and the media. Undoubtedly the conversation around scientific endeavour must be facilitated and encouraged. However, it is always important to consider the reasons for media engagement beyond the goal of securing column inches. Chasing headlines without due regard for the stories’ impact can cause adverse reactions within the public, political and media spheres and these risks must be mapped out well in advance. 

That is not to say that scientists should be wary of communicating their science in light of the ruling in Italy but these moments provide everyone involved in communicating science with a chance to reflect on the nature of mass communications and how a science story can be communicated powerfully and ethically.

For more information on L’Aquila;