Scientific Processes and Excellence in the Newfoundland and Labrador Region Being Undermined

A Perspective from the Professional Institute of Public Service Canada’s Members From the Newfoundland and Labrador Region

 

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to Timothy Sargent, Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

 

The provision of unbiased scientific advice is a cornerstone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO); the Department has used science advice for decades and it is the foundation of both the Department and effective fisheries management.

A pattern of decisions and events has emerged in the Department that is causing scientists in the Newfoundland and Labrador (N.L.) Region to have grave concerns about the current status and future direction of the Department’s science advice, scientific independence, scientific excellence and integrity.

To protect the quality and reputation of the Department’s scientific work, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has outlined below several examples of particular concern to our members in the N.L. Region and their colleagues across Canada.

 

Pattern of Departmental Decisions

The Minister’s decision to appoint panel to review the 3Ps cod assessment model

Earlier this year, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada was lobbied by the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW) and the Atlantic Groundfish Council (AGC) to appoint a three-person panel to review one more time the assessment model being used as the basis for science advice for Atlantic cod in Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) Subdivision 3Ps. Specifically, the FFAW and AGC questioned whether recent stock assessments represent an accurate interpretation of the available science.

DFO scientists from the N.L. Region and staff in the National Capital Region (NCR) produced a memo unequivocally stating that there was no scientific justification for establishing an independent review panel for work that had already been externally reviewed on multiple occasions (including reviews by participants from the AGC and FFAW).

This memo was altered at one point during the memo review process prior to submission to your office in that the recommendation to reject the request for the review panel was not submitted to you for your consideration. The decision to change the memo’s recommendation regarding the appointment of the review panel was not communicated to scientists in the N.L. Region.

On May 21, 2021, you signed a memo for the Minister that recommended the appointment of the review panel. On May 25, 2021, the Minister’s Office issued a letter to the FFAW and AGC stating that their request for a review panel would be approved.

The decision to appoint this new panel to review and comment on the efficacy of the model severely undermines scientific excellence and goes against the Department’s standards to have open and transparent science review processes (i.e. through the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat [CSAS]).

Approving the request by lobbyists has sent a clear perceived message to our scientists that the Department lacks trust in the years of collaborative work on the 3Ps cod assessment completed by Canadian and French scientists (the stock is managed bilaterally by Canada and France). It also set a troubling example, encouraging continued lobbyist efforts to circumvent the departmental science peer review processes when they do not like the resulting science advice. The review panel fosters a public perception that the DFO science is flawed and untrustworthy. It will also impact working relationships between DFO and external scientists, who will be less likely to contribute to DFO Science processes when they know that their efforts may be later called into question for reasons that are not based on science, but on other justifications outside of scientific standards.

As a consequence of this, other departmental priorities have been impacted as scientists have had to move resources away from important projects to support the review panel’s deliverables.

It should be emphasized that the underlying concern expressed by our members is not with respect to external review of the 3Ps cod model, as external expert review is already a regular component of the departmental science processes, which our members fully support and encourage.

Our members’ main concern is that the Minister’s decision to appoint a review panel, as per the request of lobbyists, circumvents and undermines the Department’s well-established peer review process. The creation of the review panel is perceived by members as a consequence of stakeholder interference in the scientific process of our Department, and several of our members have expressed concern that the review panel is a violation of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Scientific Integrity Policy (Section 6.2; which states that DFO research, science and communications are free from commercial and stakeholder interference).

 

Atlantic Seal Task Team

On August 14, 2019, the Minister announced the creation of the Atlantic Seal Task Team. As per its Terms of Reference, the purpose of the Task Team is to gather industry and stakeholder input on science activities related to seals in Atlantic Canada.

The Task Team is composed of six to 10 individuals from industry and stakeholder groups; none of the members are scientists or are involved in scientific research of any nature. This is not an example of the scientific community collaborating, but rather industry influencing departmental science.

For example, one objective of the Task Team as stated in the Terms of Reference is to provide input on the priorities of DFO’s seal science program and how information on seals should be communicated to stakeholders. The creation of this objective and the existence of the Task Team undermines the work of DFO scientists and is perceived by members as a violation of the Scientific Integrity Policy (Section 6.2).

 

Review of the FFAW’s Alternative Precautionary Approach Framework for Snow Crab

Canada is committed domestically and internationally to the use of the Precautionary Approach in fishery decision-making.

DFO Science is tasked with developing science-based frameworks for implementation of these management systems. In June 2018, after about five years of collaborative work among N.L. Science, a CSAS peer review process was held to develop a Precautionary Approach Framework for the N.L. snow crab. After rigorous review, the meeting accepted such a framework.

While the Limit Reference Points recommended by scientists attending the meeting have been implemented in the provision of scientific advice, resource managers decided not to implement the recommended Upper Stock Reference Points following lobbying by stakeholders.

In September 2020, the Department approved a request to conduct a peer review process to consider an alternative Precautionary Approach Framework drafted by the FFAW. The decision to reopen the scientific discussion and review an alternative framework two years after the original peer review process undermined the scientific excellence of the Department and called into question the credibility of its science advice and of the scientists who contributed to the advice.

It is a disappointing example of actions taken by the Department whereby previously peer-reviewed and accepted science advice can be reopened without scientific merit. The Department’s actions in this case have significantly stalled the implementation of a full Precautionary Approach Framework for the snow crab resource in N.L. and have inhibited a full evaluation of stock status (i.e. the status of the stock in relation to the cautious or healthy zones of a Precautionary Approach Framework).

By permitting the review of the alternative framework, the Department gave credit to false statements by lobbyists, and is perceived by our members as the Department accommodating lobbyist untruths aimed at impacting the credibility of its Science program. This has led to a resonating lack of trust among scientists, stakeholders and management, and has caused significant burnout, fatigue and disillusion in our members.

Other Examples and the Emergence of a Pattern

Unfortunately, the situations around the 3Ps cod assessment model, the Atlantic Seal Task Team, and the Snow Crab Precautionary Approach Framework review are not unique.

Several other actions taken by the Department have exhibited a pattern where interference with scientific work is commonplace. It should be noted that the examples below are not an exhaustive list of occurrences. Further examples, and additional details on the examples listed within this letter, can be shared at a meeting between you, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Ecosystems and Oceans Science, and our members, upon your request.

For example, during a 2019 CSAS process pertaining to the review of Grieg Seafarms NL aquaculture siting baseline assessments, the Regional Director General of the N.L. Region called an urgent meeting with the Co-Chairs and the CSAS Coordinator immediately prior to the start of the peer review process and requested that at the end of the meeting, the Co-Chairs request a vote by participants on whether to publish the resulting science advice or postpone the meeting to a later date.

This is contrary to CSAS policy and process as the findings of all peer review processes are published to support the SAGE principle (Principles and Guidance for the Effective Use of Science and Technology Advice in Government Decision-Making) of transparency and openness.

In another example, during a January 2020 CSAS process pertaining to mitigation measures for the protection of corals and sponges during exploratory oil and gas development, a politician (N.L. Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology, Andrew Parsons) was leaked a copy of the draft Science Advisory Report and lobbied the Department to change or withhold the publication of its science advice.

In addition, the Department sent a letter of reply pertaining to this CSAS process to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) which reopened the review of the draft scientific report exclusively to CAPP peer review attendees, which was contrary to standard CSAS process and scientific standards. This political and stakeholder interference undermined this scientific process and encourages additional lobbying by industry and appears to our members as another possible breach to the Scientific Integrity Policy.

This pattern of interference, and undermining of science advice and best scientific practices, is also evident in the current formal complaint against DFO by members about breaches of the DFO Scientific Integrity Policy in relation to the Regional Assessment of Offshore Oil and Gas Exploratory Drilling East of N.L. In this case, not only did members feel that there were breaches of the Scientific Integrity Policy by both an internal and an external client, but the investigation conducted by the Office of the Ombuds did not follow due process and left members feeling that their complaints were not heard or believed. Similar examples of the Department’s willingness to undercut science advice based on falsehoods and positions by industry representatives or political/lobbyist groups have also created conflictive and uncomfortable situations between scientists and managers within the NAFO Canadian Delegation, leading to a loss of science capacity within NAFO. These complaints have not yet been resolved.

 

Consequences for Our Members

These cases reveal a perceived pattern of the Department undermining scientific peer review processes and credibility, and some cases point towards concerning (direct) involvement of industry stakeholders.

When DFO employees answered a question on interference during the recent Science Member Survey conducted by PIPSC, an alarming 30 per cent of DFO respondents stated that in the past three years they have experienced or witnessed situations where there was an interference with their department’s science-based work by businesses or industry lobbyists (which is double the rate among respondents within all surveyed Departments and Agencies).

Science advice can only be considered unbiased when the scientists and scientific processes that generate that advice are seen to be free from political and stakeholder interference.

 

Conclusions and recommendations

We respectfully recommend that DFO take the following actions on behalf of our members to start rebuilding trust, scientific integrity and excellence of the Department and to ensure that similar issues do not occur again in the future:

Investigate the process and decision-making which led to the Deputy Minister’s 3Ps cod memo being altered and the three-person review panel being recommended.

Reconfirm commitment to scientific integrity and excellence by stating that science advice will not be undermined if similar situations arise in the future.

Recognize the impacts of the Department’s actions on DFO scientists and respond to the concerns outlined above.

Disband the Atlantic Seal Task Force.

Convene a meeting between DFO N.L. scientists, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Ecosystems and Oceans Science and you to discuss the concerns outlined above and a way forward.

As the Institute’s National Consultation Team President representing our scientists, I am bringing your attention to the above concerns and recommendations on behalf of scientists in the N.L. Region and their colleagues across the country whose goal is to protect the quality and reputation of the Department’s valuable scientific work.

Our scientists are dedicated staff who want the best for the Department; they have felt hurt, and still are, and have had their confidence in the Department’s scientific process undermined by the actions outlined above.

We look forward to working collaboratively and in good faith with the Department to rectify the issues noted here and to achieve our collective aim.

Thank you for your attention.

 

Judith Leblanc
DFO National Consultation Team President
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

 

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