Sunday, 28 October 2012

On the conviction of 7 Italian scientists by an Italian court for failing to predict earthquake.

It is interesting to see everyone getting worked up to defend the convicted scientists by a judiciary which probably lacks in scientific temperament and hence unable to interpret the disclaimers implicit in scientific research and publications. The examples abound, for example, "My results suggest that expected value of PGA (or, spectral acceleration at period T, for that matter) is X (but while I want this result to get published, I'll neither defend this result in any public scrutiny or discussion forum nor shall I take any stand on this matter on public policy matters)."

It is easy to plead innocence and take a detached view from the high pedestal of scientific study. But of what use is a scientific study (especially if undertaken on taxpayer's money) if the authors themselves are so noncommittal about the veracity of the results? I wonder if it has occurred to my learned colleagues that the scientists in question might have secured a huge amount of taxpayers' money as a research grant for predicting earthquakes? And the public there might be furious at having been cheated out of their money by the false promises held out by such seismologists. Earthquake prediction is a very interesting topic and never fails to touch a chord with the common population. Why, even our former president Dr. APJ Kalam was so fond of earthquake prediction that he made it a point to mention it in his convocation address at IIT Roorkee despite being advised against it. Little do people realize that earthquake prediction is not a tenable policy for earthquake disaster mitigation. Even if one were able to predict an earthquake with 100% accuracy, it does not help in protecting the investments in the region. Only a sound earthquake resistant design policy and compliance can ensure that. 

It is good that this conviction has provided an opportunity for public debate on the relevance of scientific research. About 10 years back after the 2001 Kutch earthquake, massive investments in setting up of network of seismological instruments were recommended by a committee of European/American experts invited by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India. The primary reason for this was seismological instruments can record small earthquakes which occur frequently and we may not have to wait for indefinitely for recording strong motion data. Realizing the futility of the exercise, one of our colleagues had written to various stake holders about this enormous wastage. Fortunately, a moderate earthquake at Chamoli in 1999 had provided us with enough data to support our assertion that the characteristics of ground motions change significantly with the size of the earthquake. Whatever design recommendations may be inferred from the analysis of low-magnitude small earthquake data, may be widely off the mark for the case of strong earthquakes against which the protection is to be sought. But the decision makers who dole out public money for scientific research chose to ignore the hard facts and went ahead with massive procurement of seismological instruments from European/American manufacturers on the recommendations of European/American experts!  

It is time for the scientific community to pause and think about the relevance of the studies being undertaken in the name of scientific research!