Cohen Commission — more sticky territory

The fuss over the Cohen Commission — Public inquiry into Fraser River sockeye declines — continues. Apologies, I’m a day late on this article from Mark Hume at the Globe and Mail:

cohen commission:  Salmon inquiry’s credibility under fire

John Cummins, MP from Delta-Richmond east (Vancouver area) continues his relentless attack on the Commission in two press releases the past couple of days:

The Cohen Inquiry Has Turned Into a Farce

Unfortunately neither Cohen nor his scientific panel see a conflict of interest when these same scientists who made a career out of providing DFO with advice are now placed in the position of evaluating their own work and recommendations,” concluded Cummins.

This is Not a Science Seminar

If the Cohen Inquiry is to regain even a modicum of credibility, the first order of the day must be the replacement of the existing scientific advisory panel with outsiders untainted by any association with DFO and the return of the Inquiry to its original purpose: that of evaluating the policies and practices at DFO that have lead Fraser River stocks to the brink of collapse.

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I define a conflict of interest as “a situation in which a person, such as a public official, an employee, or a professional, has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties.”

-Michael McDonald at UBC’s W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics: Ethics and Conflict of Interest

There are three key elements in this definition. First, there is a private or personal interest. Often this is a financial interest…

The problem comes when this private interest comes into conflict with the second feature of the definition, an “official duty” — quite literally the duty you have because you have an office or act in an official capacity. As a professional you take on certain official responsibilities, by which you acquire obligations to clients, employers, or others…

Third, conflicts of interest interfere with professional responsibilities in a specific way, namely, by interfering with objective professional judgment. A major reasons clients and employers value professionals is that they expect professionals to be objective and independent. Factors, like private and personal interests, that either interfere or appear likely to interfere with objectivity are then a matter of legitimate concern to those who rely on professionals — be they clients, employers, professional colleagues, or the general public. So it is also important to avoid apparent and potential as well as actual conflicts of interests.

An apparent conflict of interest is one which a reasonable person would think that the professional’s judgment is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest.

And this where I think some folks have very legitimate concerns surrounding the appointment of some specific individuals as scientific advisers to the Cohen Commission. It is by no means a suggestion that these well-qualified individuals can not provide top notch, objective information — nor that they lack any caring for salmon — nor that they are not consummate professionals.

The issue is simply with the appearance of factors that might interfere with objectivity, and as McDonald points out its important to avoid “apparent and potential” conflicts of interest as well as actual.

Now I recognize, I might be forced to the gallows for dare questioning the “objectivity” of these important fisheries scientists… however, again, that is not the issue at hand here. The issue at hand, at this point in time, is simply appearance of factors that could impact some individuals objectivity.

McDonald offers some “tests”:

How do you determine if you are in a conflict of interest, whether actual, apparent, or potential? The key is to determine whether the situation you are in is likely to interfere or appear to interfere with the independent judgment you are supposed to show as a professional in performing your official duties…

And, so here we are again with the simple “appearance” of conflict of interest. And here’s a crucial point:

Trust, in my opinion, is at the ethical heart or core of this issue. Conflicts of interest involve the abuse, actual or potential, of the trust people have in professionals. This is why conflicts of interest not only injure particular clients and employers, but they also damage the whole profession by reducing the trust people generally have in professionals.

I think I can safely suggest that maybe the entire profession of “fisheries science” is coming under the microscope at ever finer focus. We are not really awash in examples of “fisheries science” going well; granted it’s not always the ‘science’ that’s the issue but more the lack of brave action by politicians or difficult decisions by industry… and maybe quite a lot of the old tragedy of the commons.

But sometimes it isn’t enough to know that there is a particular private interest influencing a professional’s judgment; the client, employer, etc. expects that the professional will stay out of such situations. So the second way to avoid conflicts of interests is to absent yourself from decision making or advice giving if you have a private interest.

This is a sticky point… are any of the scientific advisers to the Cohen Commission, or the organizations they represent, going to be receiving,  funding from Fisheries and Oceans in the future? (many have certainly benefited from employment, contracts, or research in the past). If so, does this not have the “appearance” of conflict?

McDonald offers some advice:

It may take some skill and good judgment to recognizing that you are in a conflict of interest situation. This is because private and personal interests can cloud a person’s objectivity. So it may be a lot easier to recognize when others are in a conflict, than when you are. This suggests that it may be useful to talk to a trusted colleague or friend when you are in doubt.

But once you recognize that you are in or are headed into a conflict of interest situation, the ethical responses are straightforward: get out of the situation, or, if you can’t, make known to all affected parties your private interest. These responses will preserve the trust essential to professional objectivity.

Conflict of interest can be a gray, shape-shifting, issue — and I think often misunderstood, as, simple “appearance” of this beast, or simple perception,  can often be worse than an actual conflict.

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