NEES expert questions decision to convict scientists in wake of deadly earthquake in Italy

October 29, 2012  

Julio Ramirez

Julio Ramirez
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The director of a national earthquake research center based at Purdue University says Italian authorities are setting a dangerous precedent by pushing the manslaughter convictions of scientists for not predicting a devastating 2009 earthquake.

In the early morning hours of April 6, a 6.3 quake hit L'Aquila, Italy, killing 308 people and devastating the medieval city. Last week, six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison because a requested analysis they helped prepare stated the risk of such a devastating earthquake hitting the region was small.

Julio Ramirez, chief officer of the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and a Purdue civil engineering professor, says he believes the conviction will make researchers reluctant to offer such opinions in the future.

"Engineers, scientists and researchers from across all disciplines continue to push forward with efforts to know when and where an earthquake may hit, but there are still no accurate prediction models. Scientists in the field of earthquake hazard can only forecast them with low probability," Ramirez says.

"That is why researchers at NEES and elsewhere are concentrating their focus on mitigating the impact of such natural disasters focused on improving the resilience of our built environment. This is one area in which science and engineering can have a dramatic impact to lessen the human and economic losses associated with earthquakes."

In the United States, more than 75 million Americans in 39 states live in towns and cities at risk for earthquake devastation, Ramirez says.

Through NEES, researchers are developing tools to learn how earthquakes impact the buildings, bridges, utility systems and other critical components of today's society. From that knowledge will come new design guidelines that will make structures better able to withstand earthquake demands.

"We are focused on educating the public about what we can do to protect people and property from earthquakes," Ramirez said. "Jailing researchers for being unable to predict what's still impossible to predict will only stifle the larger goals we are trying to accomplish related to improving the resilience of our society against earthquakes and tsunamis."

Since NEES officially opened its doors to researchers from the United States and abroad, almost 400 projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation, other government agencies and industry have been completed or are in progress.

In October 2009, Purdue entered into a five-year cooperative agreement with the NSF (CMMI Award # 0927178) to lead NEES and its experimental facilities at universities across the country.

The NEES equipment sites include Oregon State University; University of Nevada, Reno; University of California, Davis; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California at Los Angeles; University of California at San Diego; University of Texas, Austin; University of Minnesota; University of Illinois, Urbana; University at Buffalo-SUNY; Cornell University; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and Lehigh University.

Writers: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133,

Emil Venere, 765-494-4709,

Source: Julio Ramirez, 765-494-2716,

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