Italian Seismologists’ Convictions Remain Overturned

Following a two-day hearing, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has affirmed the decision of a lower court to overturn the convictions of six Italian seismologists (H/T ScienceInsider).  They were convicted (along with a public official) back in 2012 based on actions taken right before a serious earthquake in L’Aquila.

Once again, I am not a lawyer, nor an Italian.  I’m certainly not an Italian lawyer, nor a seismologist.

The judgment in the original trial considered the scientists guilty of not discharging their duties under the law as part of an advisory committee.  The judges in the local appellate court overturned the conviction in part because they felt the judge should have focused on the scientific quality of their analyses.  This rationale was contested in the Cassation court because the scientists on the panel did not object to the claim that previous tremors had discharged energy in the area, thereby reducing the possibility of future quakes.

However, as is often the case at the appellate level, the deliberations focused on the legal analysis applied in the cases, and not the level of scientific analysis.  (If you’re confused yet, you’re not alone).  In that analysis, the court found that only the public official should have been convicted because he reassured the public prior to the advisory committee meeting.  The scientists’ statements were considered by the appellate court to be neutral and not sufficient support for the official’s reassurances of a lower chance of tremors.

In related news, the manslaughter trial for another public official connected to the L’Aquila earthquake was delayed until next March.

From One CSA To A Committee Of Seven: EU Science Advice

Back in May the European Commission announced it would set up a Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) under the current President.  This was to replace, at least in part, the functions of the chief scientific adviser under the previous administration.  One component of the SAM is the High Level Group of Scientific Advisers, a committee of seven prominent scientists that will provide independent advice to the Commission.

On November 10 the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, named the seven members of the high level group.  They are:

  • Janusz M. Bujnicki
    Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Warsaw
  • Pearl Dykstra
    Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
  • Elvira Fortunato
    Professor, Materials Science Department of the Faculty of Science and Technology, NOVA University, Lisbon
  • Rolf-Dieter Heuer
    Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
  • Julia Slingo
    Chief Scientist, Met Office, Exeter
  • Cédric Villani
    Director, Henri Poincaré Institute, Paris
  • Henrik C. Wegener
    Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Technical University of Denmark

The group is expected to hold its first meeting in January.  Between now and then (and probably for some time after) the group and its staff will be developing processes and guidelines for its work and the plethora of questions about how it will provide independent scientific advice to the Commission.  Given the way in which the Commission decided to create this body, a lot of people will be watching.

Ebola Outbreak Continues, With Some Good News

Since the little panic has subsided in the U.S., little attention has been paid here to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  While it has not yet ended, there is some good news.

While the epidemic re-emerged in Liberia earlier this year, as of November 7 it has retreated from Sierra Leone.  This means that it has been seven weeks since the person with the last reported case of the disease has had a second negative blood test for the virus.  For the next 90 days World Health Organization and other personnel will engage in a period of enhanced surveillance to ensure no new cases of Ebola emerge in the country.

As of November 1 there have been 28,571 reported confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola since this outbreak officially began in Mary 2014.  There have been 11,299 reported deaths linked to these cases (though it is not always clear that Ebola was the proximate cause of death).

While the outbreak is subsiding, the lasting damage to the physical and social systems of the affected countries will linger for a long time.  (For instance, since this outbreak affected those over 14 much, much more than those under 14, there are a lot more orphans in the affected countries.)  Recovery efforts will continue for months, and the damage caused will linger for longer.

European Science And Technology Ethics Group To Continue In New Government

Most of the fuss raised by the science advocacy community over the changes in European Commission structure focused on the discontinued position of Chief Scientific Adviser.  By the end of this year a seven member science advisory board should be in place.

However, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) was in a similar state of limbo following the change in Commission Presidents.  It was recently announced that the group will continue as part of the research department, where the science advisory board will also sit.

The EGE has been around since 1991, and currently has five theologians, five lawyers and five scientists as members.  Its closest U.S. equivalent appears to be the various bioethical commissions that advised presidential administrations.  The work product of the EGE has focused on matters connected to biotechnology, but it is not limited to that area.  Recently the EGE has also conducted ethics reviews of grant applications under the Framework Programmes (and presumably their successor, Horizon 2020).

Let’s Not Get Too Excited, But There’s A New Canadian Cabinet

Yesterday Justin Trudeau was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Canada following the Liberal Party’s performance in last month’s election.  He also announced his cabinet, and his government announced that it would restore the mandatory long-form census.  I’ll focus on the cabinet, but the census decision is a big deal, especially with the next one scheduled for 2016. The official list of the top tier Cabinet appointments is online.

The census decision was announced by the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, MP Navdeep Bains.  Minister Bains was returned to Parliament in this year’s election, having served previously in Parliament from 2004-2011.  His training is in finance and his non-Parliamentary experience has been in financial analysis.  Like the new UK Minister with responsibility for science, Jo Johnson, Bains is considered a rising figure in his party.

Prime Minister Trudeau also appointed a Minister of Science, MP Kirsty Duncan.  In a rarity for such a position, Duncan is a trained scientist, a medical geographer.  This ministerial post is at a higher level in the cabinet than it was in the Harper Government (some would argue that it didn’t exist in that government, but I consider that a semantic argument).  Duncan has served in Parliament since 2008, and was a professor at the University of Windsor and the University of Toronto before this.  Details of her portfolio, and how things might differ now that this ministry is on a higher cabinet level, aren’t clear at the moment.

There are, of course, other appointments to the cabinet that will deal with science and/or technology matters.

MP Marc Garneau, retired astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency, will be Minster of Transport.  Garneau represented the Liberal Party in the national cross-party science debate.

MP Jim Carr will be the Minister of Natural Resources.  This is his first term in Parliament, but has served in the Manitoba legislative assembly.  His background is particularly varied, having (among other things) formed the Business Council of Manitoba, worked as a reporter on the Winnipeg Free Press, and played oboe for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

MP Catherine McKenna is the new Minister for Environment and Climate Change (climate change has been added to the job title).  She is a lawyer and also in her first term in Parliament.

MP Dr. Jane Philpott is the new Health Minister, and also a first-termer in Parliament.  She has years of experience in the health care industry and is a medical doctor of note.

MP Hunter Tootoo is the new Minister for Oceans and Fisheries and the Canadian Coast Guard.  He is also a first-term federal MP, though he has experience in local and territorial government in Nunavut (go ahead, look it up).  He has stated that Trudeau appointed him to the ministry in part because Trudeau wanted to remind Canadians they have three oceans.  Tootoo is not the first Inuk nor the first MP from Nunavut to serve in a Canadian cabinet.  His predecessor, Leona Aglukkaq, served as Minister of Health and then Minister of Environment during the Harper Government.  Canada continues to take the Arctic seriously.

L’Aquila Earthquake Trial Expands And Reaches Next Level Of Appeal

ScienceInsider reports on developments in the trial of six Italian scientists and a public official in connection with remarks made prior to the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.

(Once again I will note that I am not a lawyer, and have even less experience with the Italian legal system.)

That earthquake led to 309 deaths, and the seven people on trial were convicted of manslaughter.  However, earlier this last year the convictions of the six scientists were overturned, while the conviction of the then-deputy of Italy’s civil protection department remained (with a reduced sentence).  Their case continues on appeal, and will have a hearing in front of the highest appellate court in Italy on November 19.

On the next day the manslaughter trial begins of Guido Bertolaso, who was head of the Italian civil protection department.  He had been investigated since January of 2012 in light of a recorded phone call that Bertolaso made to a local official the night before his deputy and the six seismologists met with people in L’Aquila to discuss the risk of earthquakes in the region.  In the call Bertolaso allegedly outlines what the scientists would say and characterized the meeting as a means of quieting another scientist whose predictions had alarmed the L’Aquila population.  Bertolaso has only recently been ordered to stand trial, despite prior efforts to compel such an action.  The first hearing will take place in L’Aquila on November 20.

U.S. Releases Third Open Government National Action Plan

In connection with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) meetings this week in Mexico City, the U.S. released its third Open Government National Action Plan.  The government releases these plans every two years as part of its membership in the Partnership.  (It is also distinct from any commitments OGP members make during the current meetings.)

The third plan includes new commitments, many of which build on previous commitments to make government information more usable and accessible to the public that it serves.  New commitments that are of particular interest to me are the efforts to set up web design standards, as well as an effort to make publicly available every address in the U.S.  Science and technology do not have a large role as a subject in this plan, but technology is an important tool in implementing many, if not all, of the commitments to open government.

Unfortunately, the most recent progress report on how the government has been implementing its plan(s) is for 2011-2013.  There is a more current self-assessment available.  The Open Government Partnership summit continues through tomorrow, the 29th.