On October 23, the leader of Italy's top disaster body quit in protest after seven of its members received jail sentences because of a deadly earthquake. The head of the Major Risks committee, Luciano Maiami, as well as several other top scientists quit after seven members were found guilty of manslaughter for underestimating the severity of a 2009 earthquake which killed 309 people.
The scientists will remain free until they have exhausted two avenues of appeal according to Italian law, but the scientific community has expressed fear that the impact of this ruling could damage the foundation of the relationship between the state and science.
If scientists run the risk of being criminally charged for conclusions they draw or fail to draw based on analyzing the data that is available to them, it fundamentally impedes the scientific process. Specifically, the concern is that setting a precedent which leaves scientists legally vulnerable for findings or suggestions they give to the government will either open up the scientific community to outside, non-scientific pressures, or it will discourage collaborations between science and the state altogether.
In recent years, science and scientists have become a surprisingly touchy subject in U.S. politics, as the scientific community has been a frequent target of some of the more right-wing conservative commentators. Because science and scientists have become closely associated with secularism, liberal academia, and the environmental movement, the scientific community has received condemnation and suspicion from conservatives.
When these issues are viewed from the perspective of the partisan divide, it can be easy for those who continue to be suspicious of the scientific community to support the action of the Italian court in the name of establishing "accountability." It is important to preemptively point out that pursuing any such goal would fundamentally undermine the ideals of the United States, and severely hurt the scientific progress of the nation.