On the April 6, 2009, following months of minor tremors and seismic swarms, an earthquake of magnitude 5.8 on the Richter scale hit the Abruzzo region of central Italy. More than 300 people perished in the early hours of that terrible morning, as medieval buildings in the town of L’Aquila collapsed. At least 40,000 were made homeless. Three years later, the town still has not recovered.

This week, another seismic shock passed around the world. Six Italian scientists were sentenced — for six years jail, each — for failing to adequately warn the residents of L’Aquila of the dangers they faced.

This is an almost unprecedented situation. Scientists being on trial — even sent to jail — is not something we are used to. As many scientists tweeted, are we next? Will the Bureau of Meteorology be sued if it rains on our wedding day?

Yet the science community is not without its own knee-jerk reactions. The L’Aqulia case says important things about the role of science — and science communication particularly — in facing such dangerous situations. At heart, it seems that the scientists in question presented, or allowed the presentation of, dangerously misleading advice. Whether this is a jailable offence is debatable. Whether they are responsible is worth examining.

In the weeks prior to the tragedy, as public concern about seismic activity increased, Italy consulted its National Risk Assessment Team about the possibility of a major earthquake striking the region. Six geophysicists and the vice-director of the Department of Civil Protection (a hydraulic engineer by training), made a unique and unusual presentation to the town.

Bernardo de Bernardinis, Vice-Director of the Department of Civil Protection told the people of L’Aquila that the almost daily tremors over the past few months were “normal” and posed “no danger”. He added that “the scientific community continues to assure me that … it is a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When asked by a journalist whether this meant “we should have a nice glass of wine”, de Bernardinis answered — perhaps flippantly — “absolutely”.

The people of L’Aqulia left the meeting feeling reassured. The prosecutor of the case, Fabio Picuti, argued that local residents made fateful decisions that night:

Maurizio Cora, a lawyer who lived not far from Vittorini, told prosecutors that after the March 30 shock, he and his family retreated to the grounds of L’Aquila’s 16th-century castle; after the 11pm foreshock on April 5, he said his family “rationally” discussed the situation and, recalling the reassurances of government officials that the tremors would not exceed those already experienced, decided to remain at home, “changing our usual habit of leaving the house when we felt a shock”. Cora’s wife and two daughters died when their house collapsed.

The headlines we have seen around the world in the last few days — and the endless tweets — have been of “Science on trial”, as if the scientists at the heart of this had failed to predict the inherently unpredictable. The ABC ran with the headline of “Scientists in shock at ‘outlandish’ earthquake ruling”; the Guardian talked of ‘A chilling verdict in L’Aquila‘ and connected Galileo to L’Aquila by declaring ‘Italian science on trial.’ Was science actually on trial?

Prosecutors were at pains to emphasise that it was not the science itself that was on trial. “I’m not crazy,” said chief prosecutor Picuti:

“I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila…They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors, and they did not.”

This is a crucial point. This was not a trial of science, but of science communication: did the scientists assembled that day in L’Aquila adequately and responsibly communicate their knowledge?

We as scientists are happy knowing that science speaks in the language of statistics and probabilities. We are wary of making generalisations or black and white predictions. In a situation where a risk assessment is required, the level of risk, and the outcomes that may arise, are part of the overall evaluation of a situation. Yet in this instance, the risks, it seems, were not adequately assessed, discussed, and most tellingly, communicated.

Two key points must be stressed. The first is that de Bernardinis, the hydraulic engineer in charge of Civil Protection, gave worryingly calming advice in the face of clear scientific advice to the contrary. Swarms of tremors in the Apennine region were known, on about 2% of occasions, to lead to large quakes. Yet de Bernardinis assured those in the town –whilst the geophysicists sat quietly nearby — that the tremors were “discharging the energy”.

The second point is that assembled in the press conference that day were seismologists who knew better. They knew that de Bernardinis’ advice was not scientifically correct and was, in fact, dangerous. Yet they failed to say so in an open and public manner.

Perhaps in response to the statements made that day the residents of L’Aquila, accustomed to regular tremors and seismic activity, changed their behaviour. Traditionally, the residents of L’Aquila would leave their houses during a tremor, gathering in the local piazza or elsewhere to sleep in the open. After the meeting, however, many people chose not to leave their homes. Should the assembled scientists be held responsible for this? Should they be sent to jail? These are not easy questions to answer.

We in the scientific community ask constantly to be heard, and to be taken seriously. We hope that people will heed our warnings on climate change, or advice on drugs, and genetically modified organisms. On this occasion, it seems the scientists were taken very seriously. But if we ask to be taken seriously, should not we also expect to bear responsibility for that?

It isn’t hard to draw an Australian parallel. We face cyclones and bushfires, and any number of other calamities that are not entirely understood by science. As Anna-Maria Arabia, CEO of Science Technology Australia, the peak representative body for scientists in Australia, argued in response to the L’Aquila case, “scientists should always provide frank and fearless advice based on the best available evidence at the time and legal frameworks should support and protect scientists so they can do so”.

Yet — as the L’Aquila case highlights — providing frank and fearless advice isn’t always that easy. Where and when should the scientists have stepped up and said “You’re wrong?” And would their message have been heard and acted upon?

While the convictions have opened a wider discussion with the public on the importance of science communication, the downside of the threat of litigation is the possibility that scientists will fall silent, unwilling to take the risk of speaking out or of advising out of turn. The nature of the advice given often isn’t clear cut, making communication difficult and policy formulation more complicated, particularly in situations concerning natural disasters. It is up to governments as well as scientists to develop appropriate harm-minimisation strategies in response.

How should the scientists at L’Aquila have weighed the benefits of social calm against seismic collapse? Was it up to the scientists to mitigate these concerns? These scientists were not trained in political communication and policy formulation, and it seems that in this instance, the politicians and politics of the situation failed them, and the town of L’Aquila, spectacularly.

* Upulie Divisekera is a scientist, science writer and communicator (tweeting at @upulie). Will Grant is an academic at the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (tweeting at @willozap).