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The Case for an Independent Science Advisory Body at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)

To close our Perspectives on Scientific Integrity blog series, we spoke to Dr. Gideon Mordecai about his new study looking into how science advice falls short at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). This study was co-authored by scientists from a non-profit environmental organization, universities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as a practicing environmental lawyer.
Photo credit: Amy Romer.

Dr. Gideon Mordecai is a Research Associate at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. His research considers the ecology of viruses, i.e. their interactions with each other, their hosts, and the environment. Following his PhD, Gideon moved to Canada for a post-doctoral position at the University of British Columbia in 2016, where he discovered 15 new viruses in salmon. He went on to receive a Liber Ero Fellowship, which supports emerging conservation leaders in Canada. His most recent research applied viral genome sequencing to assess the transmission risk posed to wild Pacific salmon by Atlantic salmon aquaculture in BC.


Evidence for Democracy (E4D): In your new study, you and your co-authors reviewed how government science advice continues to be influenced by non-science interests in the case of fisheries and oceans science. Tell us more about this.

Gideon Mordecai (GM): In our study, we use the example of salmon aquaculture to demonstrate how DFO’s science advice can fail to be impartial, evidence based, transparent, and independently reviewed — four hallmarks of robust science advice. We describe how the current science advice system has allowed the regulator of the salmon farming industry (DFO) to invite salmon farm employees to review ‘scientific’ assessments of the industry’s impacts, to suppress research into salmon pathogens by DFO’s own scientists, and to avoid sharing aquaculture data for independent analyses.

The crux of the issue is that science advice and policy are too intertwined within DFO. The processes for providing science advice are in need of an overhaul. We are not alone in saying so: the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans recently examined science at DFO, and their study reached similar conclusions.

E4D: In your study, you used the example of salmon aquaculture in British Columbia. Are issues with science advice at DFO limited to salmon aquaculture, or is it a broader problem?

GM: Unfortunately, it is a broader problem, and there are several other high profile examples of DFO distorting the science-advice to put industry interests first. Notably, an internal survey by the union representing DFO scientists in Newfoundland and Labrador found that 30% of respondents experienced interference with science by businesses or industry lobbyists.

DFO policies can sometimes look reasonable on paper, but are not effective in practice. By studying the most controversial cases, such as aquaculture, the cracks in the system reveal themselves. Our study is not about criticizing individuals at DFO, but rather ensuring that a system is in place to protect against individual failings. The lessons we have learned from DFO’s handling of salmon aquaculture in BC can inform how to improve DFO science advice processes across the board.

E4D: Why does all of this matter?

GM: Canada has a legal duty to protect and conserve fish for Canadians, which is not being met. Failing to use the best science can be catastrophic.

The case for improving fisheries-science advice in Canada has never been stronger. Many fish stocks are in decline, and there is extensive mistrust of science at DFO. There is widespread concern that DFO, the regulator, serves the needs of industry over those of the public (this is known as regulatory capture).

Science needs to be just science, free of political and economic influences. Economic and social considerations are an important part of decision-making, but these need to be weighed with the science at the end of the process. Robust science review processes are needed to ensure that science advice remains free of political and economic influences, and that science can play its role, among other important considerations, at the decision-making table.

E4D: In your paper, you and your co-authors call for decision-makers to implement a truly independent fisheries-science advisory body. Why is this necessary?

GM: The systemic problems within DFO science advice we describe in our paper are beyond the reach of incremental corrective measures. Canada needs a politically independent body of scientists to provide credible fisheries science advice to decision-makers.

An independent science review body would help rebuild trust in DFO, guard against industry and political influence, and prevent Canada from falling further behind international standards of best practice in fisheries-science advice set by its peers. Above all, DFO needs to ensure trust in their science advice and processes.

E4D: What should the features of this independent fisheries science body be?

GM: In our paper, we propose key features which the independent science advisory body would need to insulate itself from non-science influences and regulatory capture. These include:

  1. A legislative basis that enshrines science advice as one input to decision-making
  2. Clear terms of reference tied to the regulator’s public-interest mandate
  3. Stable funding that is independent of industry
  4. Strict conflict of interest policy to guarantee independence from industry and the regulator
  5. Freedom of scientific inquiry
  6. Editorial independence.

E4D: As you pointed out in your study, your findings aren’t new. Twenty-six years ago, Hutchings et al. (1997) similarly illustrated how non-science influences interfered with DFO science in the case of the Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon, and also called for the formation of a politically independent organization of fisheries scientists.

What gives you hope today that decision-makers will heed your call? And what can the broader science and research community do to support this call?

GM: The good news is that there appears to be widespread support and understanding that marine resources are limited, and that the oceans demand careful protection and science-informed management to safeguard them for future generations. The Standing Committee’s report, and its call for an examination from the Chief Science Advisor on how to reform science processes, demonstrate that there is a political appetite for change.

On the other hand, I am yet to see any meaningful response or acceptance that there is a problem from within DFO itself, other than a new registry for external science experts, a band-aid solution unlikely to resolve many of the systemic issues we identified in our paper.

I am hopeful that the open science movement will continue to spillover from the research community into government departments and this will lead to more robust science and science processes — and ultimately help Canada to fulfill its obligations to conserve biodiversity. For good reason, many scientists are wary of speaking out and advocating for specific policy decisions, since it could be argued that doing so compromises their scientific objectivity. In contrast, I think most scientists would be comfortable in advocating for an evidence-based approach. I think it’s imperative that the scientific community voices support for government departments as they seek to strengthen their science review processes.

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