The group was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty by a court in L’Aquila of involuntary manslaughter and playing down the risks of a large earthquake hitting the Abruzzo region, of which L’Aquila is the capital.
They were also ordered to pay nearly $12 million in damages to survivors. L’Aquila’s once-handsome medieval center remains a jumble of dust and rubble, amid endless wrangling over how to the rebuilding should be paid for.
Fear of ending up in jail would dissuade scientists from giving any advice at all, or force them to err on the side of alarmism, giving the worst-case scenario so that they could never be accused of underestimating a risk, experts said.
That would “generate an exponential increase in alarms that will cause deep distrust in those who issue them, and panic among the general population,” said Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, which responds to natural disasters.
"It is easy to imagine the effect of this incident on all those asked to assume responsibility in these sectors,” he added in a statement.
The verdicts could lead to “paralysis” in the forecasting and prevention of natural catastrophes, he added.
Italian scientists “of the highest caliber will hold back from doing their jobs, so that no professional opinions will be offered at all,” said Luciano Maiami, the head of the Major Risks Committee, who resigned in protest on Tuesday along with his deputy, Mauro Rosi.
There needed to be a much clearer division of roles between experts providing their technical expertise and the officials who acted on them, said Stefano Gresta, the current president of the National Institute of Geophysics. "What scientist will want to express his opinion knowing that he could end up in jail?" he asked.
The controversial verdicts generated headlines around the world. La Repubblica, one of Italy’s most respected dailies, said: “The Italian scientific world fears that they will no longer be able to work without risking a confrontation with the judiciary.”
The scientists feel they have been made scapegoats for an earthquake that caused millions of dollars' worth of damage, including the loss of historical churches and Renaissance works of art.