Draw breath, hazard scientists in Australia, and read the article from Reuters on the jailing of  scientists after an earthquake in Italy killed more than 300 people.

But dont just sit back and sympathise with the Italian scientists who appear to have been dealt with harshly, but instead question your role in keeping people safe. Do you have a  responsibility to ensure your science remains neutral and accessible, and that it not be manipulated in the hands of emergency agencies, politicians, cautious partial bureacracts  or other vested interests?

In short I ask how many scientists in Australia are sitting on research which could service the public interest in responding to or mitigating hazards, who haven’t shared that information with the widest possible audience, knowing that lives could be saved if they did so? This isnt the focus of the case in Italy, but it’s a good chance to raise the question.

According to Reuters Newsagency Alberto Sisto six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter by an Italian court on Monday for failing to give adequate warning of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila in 2009.

The seven, all members of a body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in evaluating the danger and keeping the central city informed of the risks.

The case has drawn condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working in seismology and seismic risk assessments.

“The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison,” Richard Walters of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences said.

“This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.”

At the heart of the case was the question of whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risk facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had already been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries.

Key to the dispute is the kind of cautious language, hedged by caveats and reserves which scientists typically use in predicting highly uncertain events, but which can be of limited use as a guideline for the general public.

According to scientific opinion cited by prosecutors, the dozens of lower level tremors seen before the quake were typical of the kind of preliminary seismic activity seen before major earthquakes such as the one that struck on April 6.

Instead of highlighting the danger, they said the experts had made statements playing down the threat of a repeat of the earthquakes which wrecked the town in 1349, 1461 and 1703, saying the smaller shocks were a “normal geological phenomenon”.

Science is often said to be neutral, but of course it has impact and consequence. 

For example, Geoscience Australia has conducted significant surveys of tsunami impact on coastal communities in Australia. I have over the years asked to have access to the maps I’ve seen to load on line so residents can adequately explore their own risk. Always I have been refused. Sometimes it’s been with a laugh that “it would be a great ratings exercise” which they wont participate in for fear of unfairly assisting one media agency over another. Other times I’ve been told that the emergency agencies haven’t devised ways of dealing with the event so releasing the information would unnecessarily alarm residents.

I checked again to see how much detail can be found online about tsunami risk in varous locations in Australia.  Have a look at the GA hazards map site online: no tsunami maps even mentioned. Only this broad picture of the forecast threat to the Australian coastline.

Some fire agencies use science to predict bushfire travel, but they too always refuse to make their predictions public. The science around house damage in bushfires has been known for many years. Only now are we telling residents that “homes, no matter what they are built of, will NOT survive some fires.”

There are some agencies which operate with clarity – The Bureau of Meteorology has a policy of giving as much information as possible to the public to enable them to understand weather behaviour. This gives people a chance to understand their own personal risk and make plans to deal with it. 

In order to create a more resilient society people should have access to all the information they need to make their own risk assessment so they can plan accordingly. People should be trusted to be able to take steps that lead to the level of safety they prefer.    

The US region of Washington issues tsunami warning maps to every at risk community, detailing the risk and likely safer places. They also have an “open record law” which ensures that if they have safety information, they are obliged to make it public. Australia could learn from that approach.

But scientists too have responsibility for guiding the community in these areas.