Code of conduct to address conflicts of interest in ICES

Published on April 17, 2019

Science and scientists are given an increasing role in the development and implementation of European fisheries and environmental policy. As such, the International Council on the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) has an agreement with the European Commission to provide scientific advice.

For example, the scientists at ICES may be asked to evaluate if a proposed harvest control rule in a multiannual management plan could be considered precautionary or not. At a later stage, ICES may be requested to assess what level of fishing is consistent with the rules in the management plan.

The growing role of science in fisheries policy makes it more attractive for stakeholders to try to influence the process. This also raises questions about the role of fisheries scientists in different circumstances.

In part as a response to discussions on industry-financed scientists in ICES work, the ICES Council adopted a Code of Conduct in 2018 for a three year trial period. The purpose of the Code of Conduct is to minimise any risk of actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest. It is to be applied to scientists participating in ICES Expert Groups, Review and Advice Drafting Groups and Advice Committee/Science Committee meetings.

The Code requires all participants, including the Chair, to declare any conflicts of interest. It is up to the Chair to ensure that these declarations are made. In case of uncertainty, scientists are expected to err on the side of caution.

At a meeting between ICES, Advisory Councils and other Observers (MIACO), 17-18  January 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark, ICES presented its Code of conduct to stakeholders. The Code got mixed reactions from industry representatives. One argued that it was unnecessary. There was concern that it might not be effective, as someone may choose not to disclose information or influences. Some were concerned about the participation of industry financed scientists in ICES work. Others were positive that the Code created a better framework for allowing industry scientists to be able to participate. NGOs for their part welcomed a Code of Conduct after previous events.

Some of these issues were addressed in an article in the ICES Journal of Marine Science already in 2016. The authors point to the  problem of there being a small pool of fisheries scientists with the necessary competence. Matters can get particularly sensitive when scientists are doing work financed by the fishing industry. According to the article the ideal (disinterested science) may then come into conflict with a reality (an understandable, perhaps unstated, expectation that industry gets something for their money). This illustrates a more general question of if a scientist could be influenced by funding sources.

Challenges like these make it more important for the legitimacy and credibility of fisheries science that scientists are clear about what their role is in a particular situation. As the authors put it, clarifying what “hat” they are wearing. One concrete recommendation was “codes of conduct” for how to deal with potential conflicts of interest, in the same spirit that ICES has now implemented.