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About the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS)

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The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) coordinates the scientific peer review and science advice for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The CSAS publishes departmental scientific advice and information on issues such as fish stock dynamics, species at risk, invasive species, ecology of marine and freshwater ecosystems, marine protected areas, aquaculture, and the use of living aquatic resources.

In partnership with the Centres for Science Advice (CSA), located in each of our administrative regions, scientific assessments are conducted independently, tailored to regional, zonal (more than one region) or national needs. These peer review processes are conducted according to the following principles:

  • providing timely, responsive and flexible to client needs,
  • employing the most appropriate and credible scientific methods,
  • involving a range of expertise and perspectives along with scientific experts from within and external to DFO in the review process, and
  • providing an accessible public document trail

Using our website, we also coordinate the publication of the peer review meeting products that are linked to the Science Advisory Schedule, a dynamic online calendar that includes information on past and upcoming peer reviews. Meeting products include Science Advisory Reports and Science Responses which summarize the advice generated at the meetings. Research Documents contain the technical basis for advice and proceedings reports document the meeting discussions.

History of the Peer Review Process

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has used science advice in decision-making for decades. Following the expansion of national jurisdiction when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted, a structured peer review process open only to DFO Science experts, was developed for providing fisheries advice on Canada's east coast. The process was managed through the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee (CAFSAC). As well, on the west coast of Canada, in 1985, the Pacific Scientific Advice Review Committee (PSARC) was created to review and evaluate scientific information on the status of living aquatic resources, their ecosystems, and on biological aspects of stock management. Similarly, the Arctic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee was established in 1990. CAFSAC expanded the issues it addressed from stock assessment to broader environmental issues in the mid 1980s, but maintained the same basic peer review approach until 1992 when it was disbanded. Separate Regional Advisory Processes (RAP) coordinated peer review and provision of scientific advice on Atlantic fisheries through the 1990's, using the DFO expert-only format but lacking inter-regional exchange.

In 1997, the Canadian Stock Assessment Secretariat (CSAS) was formed drawing on the experiences of all the regional peer review processes, as well as experience of international organizations such as Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC), and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). However, two key improvements were made: inclusiveness of invited experts from outside DFO and timely publication of the science advice and related documentation. These changes supported the principles of inclusiveness, transparency, and openness, outlined in the 1999 Government of Canada report, Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Use of Science and Technology Advice in Government Decision Making, commonly referred to as the SAGE principles.

Initially, most of the scientific information and advice provided by CSAS was related to the assessment of stock status and trends in support of management of commercial fisheries, and was documented in the Stock Status Report series. As DFO responsibilities grew with adoption of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), the Oceans Act (OA) and the Species at Risk Act (SARA), additional report series were created including the Habitat Status Report and Ecosystem Status Report series. The nature of the review processes were consistent, however, among the wider range of issues faced by the Department. In 2001, the Secretariat was re-named the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS); and in 2005, one serial publication called the Science Advisory Report was created, merging the three previous serials.

When peer review is discussed, it is often in the context of a small number of anonymous experts, typical of journal publication processes; however, challenge-format meetings to apply quality assurance to the results of scientific studies or theories have existed for many years. Under the current departmental scientific peer review meetings, a group of experts is invited to review and synthesize data, methods and results of scientific studies and prepare consensus advice based on the conclusions. This format is used by most marine science advisory processes, including DFO Science for the purpose of providing advice and information for decision-making.

Throughout its existence, CSAS has functioned effectively in provision of the necessary quality assurance for science advice. The basic approach has been largely stable over its history, although the process has become more and more complex as it must address increasingly complex and diverse issues.

The SAGE Principles

The Government of Canada, recognizing the importance of effectively addressing science-based issues, developed a set of principles for the use of science advice in making policy and regulatory decisions, Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Use of Science and Technology Advice in Government Decision Making or the SAGE principles. These principles provide guidance on how to ensure that government decisions are informed by sound science advice. Furthermore, they are the basis of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) science peer review processes.

It is well recognized that sound decision-making in management and policy formation must be based on the best available science. At DFO, science-based information is only part of policy formation and development of management approaches. Regardless, the high quality of science information developed through the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) peer review process is invaluable in ensuring that the subsequent consultative processes with stakeholders and advisory bodies proceed from a shared and reliable information base.

The SAGE principles are:

  1. Early Identification: The government needs to anticipate, as early as possible, those issues for which science advice will be required, in order to facilitate timely and informed decision making.
  2. Inclusiveness: Advice should be drawn from a variety of scientific sources and from experts in relevant disciplines, in order to capture the full diversity of scientific schools of thought and opinion.
  3. Sound Science and Science Advice: The government should employ measures to ensure the quality, integrity and objectivity of the science and science advice it uses, and ensure that science advice is considered in decision making.
  4. Uncertainty and Risk: Science in public policy always contains uncertainty that must be assessed, communicated and managed. Government should develop a risk management framework that includes guidance on how and when precautionary approaches should be applied.
  5. Transparency and Openness: The government is expected to employ decision-making processes that are open as well as transparent to stakeholders and the public.
  6. Review: Subsequent review of science-based decisions is required to determine whether recent advances in scientific knowledge have an impact on the science advice used to reach the decision.

For peer reviewed information and advice at DFO, early identification of science peer review requirements allows for the provision of better advice. In order to develop good quality advice, the science peer review should examine all of the pertinent information and analyses. Time is required to prepare summaries of the existing knowledge on the topic under study, design studies, assemble data, conduct analyses, identify conclusions and prepare the relevant documentation for the peer review. In order to help achieve this, the CSAS develops an annual schedule of peer review meetings in consultation with its departmental clients.

All CSAS processes, including those involving traditional knowledge and those requiring short timelines, are subject to due diligence. This includes rigorous review and quality control of all input, analyses, findings, and recommendations. Scientists need to have the flexibility to explore the range of conclusions and interpretations that the scientific findings suggest during peer review meetings.

To ensure transparency and openness, information regarding CSAS processes is readily available to the public through the CSAS website. The Science Advisory Schedule provides the relevant information regarding upcoming processes including the terms of reference. Advice and other documents produced through peer review processes are also posted on the CSAS website once finalized. In most circumstances peer review meetings include participants external to DFO with relevant expertise. External experts along with participants from stakeholder groups are typically invited to participate in order to provide a rigorous peer review of the issue based on their scientific expertise.

It is important to note that DFO science peer review processes are conducted by departmental invitation only. Individuals with scientific experience and expertise with the issue under consideration are invited to participate.

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