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Italy’s clash between science and the law has been overstated

Some see prosecutors’ investigation of a plant-disease outbreak as a witch-hunt. That’s not the case, says Francesco Sylos Labini.

On 18 December 2015, public prosecutors from the town of Lecce in southern Italy investigating the spread of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa in olive trees placed nine researchers from local institutions under investigation.

The prosecutors are investigating charges ranging from negligent spread of a plant disease, environmental negligence, falsehoods in public documents and dispersion of dangerous substances, to the destruction of natural beauty. Judges also halted containment measures, which included the felling of infected trees.

The moves have provoked debate in the Italian and international press about whether the judiciary has the right to judge scientists’ results. Nature quoted one investigated scientist as calling the accusations “crazy”. The Washington Post drew parallels with the prosecution of six geologists following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, saying: “This isn’t the first time Italian scientists have faced prosecution for doing their jobs.”

Are, then, justice and science at odds in Italy? To frame this issue, we must first recognise that justice has a different logic from science. The former is guided by the law, the latter by the scientific method. These are obviously different things, and scientists are first of all citizens, obliged to follows their country’s laws.

In the Xylella case, the situation is evolving and some of the prosecutors’ documents remain private. The investigations are complex because they concern 10 people on a number of different charges. A central fact is that prosecutors have cast doubt on the causal relation between Xylella and the death of olive trees: both infected trees in good health, and dead trees without the bacteria, have been found. The prosecutors have also stressed that independent experts must replicate the work of the researchers under investigation.

Reading those documents that are in the public domain, it seems difficult to view any of this as a witch-hunt. There seems to be enough evidence to at least justify investigation—the researchers, for example, are suspected of importing bacterial samples without the proper permissions and the judge overseeing preliminary investigations has upheld the prosecutors’ inquiries. All this evidence, of course, must be carefully analysed in the subsequent phase of the investigation.

Similarly, it is a mistake to represent the L’Aquila earthquake as a clash between justice and science.  At no point did prosecutors question either seismologists’ ability to predict earthquakes or the way in which their knowledge was communicated to the public.

Rather, the trial centred on the reassurances provided by the Italian Major Risks National Committee, and whether these had prompted some inhabitants of L’Aquila not to leave the city before the earthquake struck. For instance, a wiretap recorded the Civil Protection chief Guido Bertolaso describing the committee’s meeting as a “media operation”—suggesting that its pronouncements were influenced by factors other than genuine risk assessment.

In an initial trial, the entire commission was convicted of spreading unfounded information. On appeal, this sentence was confined to Civil Protection vice-chief Bernardo de Bernardinis. The final judgment has recently confirmed this sentence.

It is simplistic to see the two cases as proof that Italian prosecutors are seeking high-profile scapegoats or that, as some newspaper editorials have claimed, “the country hates science”. Italian law has a principle of mandatory prosecution, meaning prosecutors lack discretion in choosing which cases to pursue; there is no need to invoke external forces or ulterior motives to explain their decisions. And the Italian legal system is conservative—like most, it requires a high burden of proof, and has several levels of trial.

The prosecutors in the Xylella investigation may be mistaken, and the allegations may be rejected, but there is no evidence that the investigations are anything other than the normal functioning of the law. Moreover, there is no evidence that researchers giving scientific advice will get into legal difficulty if such advice turns out to be wrong.

If one seeks an obscurantist crusade against science in Italy, it would be better to look at the country’s politicians. In the past 10 years, research budgets have been cut drastically, and the number of academics has decreased by 20 per cent. The country has seen its largest ever brain drain, and its academic population is the oldest in the world. The real battle in Italy is not between justice and science, but between politics and science.

Francesco Sylos Labini is a theoretical physicist at the Enrico Fermi Centre in Rome. He is an editor of the science policy blog Roars.it and the author of a book on science and the economic crisis that will appear in 2016.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe