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‘Open Science’ Critical for Effective Environmental Assessments

Review offers chance to transform assessment process and make Canada a world leader.

By Carol Linnitt 27 Dec 2016 | Desmog Canada

Carol Linnitt is managing editor of DeSmog Canada, where this story first appeared.

It describes a framework but could just as easily be read as a request: open science.

And it’s something top of mind for Canadian scientists right now as the federal government considers changes to the very way science is used to make major decisions about things like pipelines, oil and gas development and mines.

The ongoing federal review is a huge opportunity to restore scientific integrity to decision-making, scientist Aerin Jacob told DeSmog Canada.

“I really can’t underscore how big an opportunity this is,” said Jacob, Liber Ero postdoctoral scholar at the University of Victoria, adding Canada could transform the way science feeds into the environmental assessment and decision-making process.

“One of the challenges being a scientist in wanting to evaluate government’s decisions is that we can’t see the evidence,” she said. “We can’t see how decisions are being made.”

“It’s like a black box of decision-making. That’s not scientifically rigorous.”

In a conference room in Nanaimo recently, Jacob had the chance to tell the federally appointed expert panel how environmental assessments could be improved by opening up science not just to the greater scientific community, but to the public.

“All the information from an environmental assessment should be permanently and publicly available,” she said. “This is more than having binders physically in a library or documents on a server.”

Other participants who presented to the federal review panel pointed to specific examples of how a lack of transparency was detrimental to the environmental review process.

Patrick McLaren, a geologist and expert sediment analyst, participated in the environmental assessment process for the controversial Pacific Northwest LNG terminal proposed for Lelu Island near Prince Rupert. The project received federal approval in September.

McLaren was hired by local First Nations to provide scientific analysis of Flora Bank, a unique eelgrass estuary near the project site which provides resting grounds for juvenile salmon in the Skeena watershed. McLaren said he was consistently prevented from knowing what specific information project proponent Petronas and its private consultants were using to determine that salmon wouldn’t be affected by the terminal.

“In my research I came to the conclusion that the design of the terminal would probably result in Flora Bank being totally lost,” McLaren told the panel.

But when McLaren asked what information Petronas used to conclude no harm would be done to salmon, he was boxed out.

“I was precluded from asking the modellers questions,” he told the panel, adding that the data that challenged Petronas’ conclusions was not used in the decision-making process nor made public.

“The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans kept the data that did not support their conclusions secret… it was not put into the public domain because it was contrary to the ‘no harm’ mantra that was coming out of the modelling work.”

The Pacific Northwest LNG environmental assessment process, which scientists have called flawed and inadequate, is currently facing legal challenges in multiple court cases.

Adam Ford, Canadian chair of wildlife ecology and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, worked as a consultant on numerous environmental assessments in Alberta and British Columbia. He said the lack of transparency around data plagues the environmental review process.

“I have created something of a wish list for the environmental assessment panel after years of being involved in these reviews and seeing the same problems come up over and over again,” Ford said.

One of his requests to the panel is for increased transparency and reproducibility of findings in environmental impacts assessments. “Data used to assess environmental impacts should be transparent and freely available to the public and the scientific community,” he said.

“In this process they collect data, but it’s tricky because it’s collected by private companies that keep their data and methods secret,” Ford told DeSmog Canada.

“It would be good to see more meta-data on how they collected this data.”

Ford said if all participants in the process were to make their methodologies and findings public it would help standardize the research being done in these ecosystems and landscapes.

It would also help increase accountability by allowing other scientists to understand and retest any conclusions made.

“In other scientists’ sampling efforts, for example, we could go to those same places and look at the data they collected, ask them ‘how did you choose these samples, when and why?’ We could try to reproduce their findings.”

“But those standards aren’t there and this research is treated as proprietary.”

Ford said this lack of transparency undermines the integrity of public environmental assessments by preventing peer review, a key element of scientific rigour.

Furthermore, he said, not sharing research is simply inefficient. Scientists end up having to do the same research over again for environmental assessments because they can’t access the basic information that went into prior reviews.

“If they just shared the data it would help scientists,” he said. “There are efficiencies to be had throughout this transparency initiative — that’s where Western science is headed. Science is moving us to a more transparent process.”

Jacob said Canada now has the opportunity to not only modernize its review process but become a world leader in forward-thinking environmental assessments.

“Beyond the raw data we want to see the reproducible code used to analyze it,” Jacob told the review panel.

“This is the recipe we use to come up with conclusions,” Jacob said, showing a chart with raw spreadsheet data on the left and reproducible code for analyzing data on the right.

“It’s not good enough to say ‘I pressed 10 buttons, this is the result I got.’ You need to have other people be able to plug that into their own computer and get the same result.”

It might look complex, Jacob said, “But now kids in high school are learning how to do this.”

Opening up the science to review by other scientists, opening up methods and raw data to the public — all of this is “done in a spirit of making the process stronger,” Jacob said.

“It blows my mind this is not already part of environmental assessments. This would be so easy to implement.”

She added the default for scientists and officials involved in the review process “ought to be sharing information.”

“This is the standard,” Jacob said. “This is a part of a next generation environmental assessment.”  [Tyee]

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