Swinging back? Science ethos and stakeholders’ engagement in ICES advisory processes

As stakeholders are named as authors on ICES Scientific Reports, the question of stakeholder engagement versus ICES independence arises.
Published: 6 September 2019

​​​​​​​​​​When Douglas Wilson wrote The Paradoxes of Transparency: Science and the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management in Europe, the ICES science and advice process was far from transparent. Expert groups and especially the advisory process were closed door affairs. Reports and advice were published but stakeholders did not participate in, or in many cases understand , the process. A lot has changed. 

Many ICES groups are now open to stakeholder engagement and observation, to the point of now being named as authors on reports. However, this swing towards a fully open and transparent process has thrown up questions of ICES independence and credibility.

Mark Dickey-Collas, ICES Advisory Committee Chair, and Marta Ballesteros, CETMAR, Spain, have written an opinion piece that reflects on ICES position in terms of stakeholder engagement​; th​ey also look at the challenges and suggest solutions. Dickey-Collas and Ballesteros have summarized their piece here: 

In 2019, ICES expert group reports were launched as a new series, ICES Scientific Reports. In this new layout, group chairs and participants are named on the report cover as editors and authors. Stakeholder participation in groups such as benchmark workshops is now openly highlighted. This has led to some in the marine fisheries community to question the impact of publicizing such stakeholder engagement. As an organization that produces evidence for societal decision-making, ICES has a duty to remain relevant, credible, and legitimate. The concern about listing stakeholders as authors leads to a discussion that is no longer framed in terms of whether stakeholders should be engaged in the advisory process, but how this participation might hamper ICES credibility and legitimacy.

In this linked article, we discuss the issues around the discomfort caused by listing stakeholders as authors of ICES Scientific Reports. We frame the discussion under the premise that engaging with stakeholders is beneficial to the production and translation of science. Stakeholder engagement provides new insights, innovations, and solutions. It helps ensure that outputs remain relevant to the needs of society and it strengthens trust through an inclusive approach. It also increases the likelihood of delivering beneficial outcomes to the context, design, scale and political power dynamics of the scientific evidence. It has been said that engaging with stakeholders doesn't devalue science, it re-evaluates other ways of knowing. ICES must wrestle with maintaining its credibility and legitimacy when the demands for, and benefits of, engagement and iterative production of the evidence are becoming apparent.

In addition to the regular advice process, ICES also runs scoping workshops, building stakeholder engagement into specific challenges and requests (e.g. WKIRISH benchmark process, the roadmap for mackerel research needs, the EU special requests on impact of fishing on the seafloor). 

In ICES, stakeholder engagement:

  • improves the mobilization, exchange, and deployment of knowledge
  • improves uptake and fosters credibility of knowledge production
  • reinforces transparency linked to accountability

Change and reform are continual and many initiatives have taken place within ICES to ensure our credibility and legitimacy as a provider of evidence for societal decision making. The advisory councils are successfully playing a strong role in the ICES system. We now have a code of conduct, guidelines for expert and advice groups, an observer policy, a published meeting etiquette, published lists of observers, and some observers have their own voluntary codes of conduct. While some expert groups directly linked to ACOM and stock assessments are closed to stakeholders, ICES guidelines state that experts chosen for groups are judged by their expertise, behaviours, and contributions, not their affiliations. We feel that these procedures, protections, and codes of conduct ensure that ICES credibility and legitimacy is secure. ICES must continually evaluate and adapt these procedures to the changing arena in which it operates.

Challenges with greater stakeholder engagement

We acknowledge that greater engagement and co-production of science can cause challenges and threats. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development  (OECD) highlight that activities risk being captured by organized interest and pressure groups, and that engaging too often or not reflecting stakeholders concerns in the outcomes may engender stakeholder fatigue. For a range of reasons, greater engagement with stakeholders could be seen to compromise scientific integrity.

These challenges may reduce the perception of applied scientists and associated institutions as honest brokers. The boundary between scientist and stakeholder needs to be delineated. Natural scientists have, generally, not been trained to work with groups with power imbalances. Other researchers may perceive applied or co-produced research as less rigorous or less scientific, impacting the reputation of applied scientists. Divergent perspectives will likely occur, leading to the risk that participants not bound by organizational limitations may publically oppose the consensus position with added insight from the engagement. This could lead to an undermining of the credibility of the entire process.

ICES stakeholder engagement

Accountability and responsibility are expected from stakeholders that engage with ICES. Our current framework states rights and obligations for those engaging in the advisory process, but some areas may benefit from further attention. Stakeholders' accountability entails being held responsible and giving account of what happened to others not engaged. The overlapping of interaction arenas (e.g. through Advisory Councils) may multiply dissemination for those that did not take part in the process. To what extent stakeholders do share the information about both process and outputs is beyond ICES remit, but stakeholders are expected not to use insights gained for personal or commercial benefit.

The recent recognition of industry representatives as authors of our reports is a step forward, both improving transparency of process and holding those stakeholders to account. We suggest changes that are required as to how ICES engages with stakeholders, by defining objectives for the engagement and monitoring, evaluation and refining ongoing engagements.

ICES regularly reforms its framework and procedures to ensure that the best available knowledge is used for the provision of its advice. Changing stakeholder engagement has been one component of those reforms. Recognizing industry representatives as authors not only acknowledges their contribution but makes transparent what is already happening. It also holds those representatives responsible for the report to their constituencies. This said, the concerns of those requesters of advice highlights a weakness in the robustness of maintaining credibility and legitimacy of ICES advice. Any potential or perceived threat to ICES integrity must be addressed. We propose that ICES, through ACOM, develop an engagement strategy that is operationally pragmatic but thorough enough to underpin the advice. This would include objectives for engagement, mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation, and how to address shortcomings in training.

Those who challenge stakeholders listed as authors of ICES Scientific Reports recognize the efficiency of that participation but appear reluctant to accept the transparency of showing authorship. Transparency and accountability are critical components to ensure the legitimacy of the participatory processes. Without them, the attributes of transparent and unbiased advice stated by ICES cannot be met.


Read the full opinion piece​.


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​Marta Ballesteros, centre, speaking with stakeholders and scientists at ICES Workshop on scoping stakeholders on production of operational guidance on assessment of benthic pressure and impact from bottom fishing in 2017.

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Swinging back? Science ethos and stakeholders’ engagement in ICES advisory processes

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