The long path towards transparency

This February, I read an article from Science Magazine on the issues of open record laws. It was interesting that the attempt to integrate transparency into the scientific community has led to harassment of researchers. This happens in the form of incessant communication (via meetings, calls, requests, emails), legal battles and lawsuits [1]. Is this what transparency brings to EIA? Is that what scares proponents away from being transparent?

Transparency is a concept that can improve decision-making. In several of my graduate classes, we can have eternal discussions on the importance of transparency in environmental impact assessments (EIA). We have seen cases where transparency was needed, or how it could improve the EIA process. Transparency was lacking in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant project, which led to unquestioned and uninformed decisions, resulting in the infamous Fukushima disaster [2]. If transparency can improve the credibility and process of EIA, why is it met with so much resistance?

What we need to keep in mind is that peer-reviewed research studies and EIA conclusions are not the same. The audience of peer-reviewed scholarly articles includes other scholars and researchers. An EIA is meant for decision-makers and to inform stakeholders. This is an important distinction. Research papers go through peer-reviewing “as the system for evaluating the quality, validity, and relevance of scholarly research [3].” An EIA report is meant to analyze the impacts of a particular project.

During one class, we discussed a paper by O’Faircheallaigh [4] that looked at the different types and purposes of public participation. It would be interesting to allow these types of public participation to provide controlled opportunities for anyone interested instead of limiting the transparency of the project. We know that there has already been an increase in restraints on public participation with the current CEAA 2012 [5]. We should at least increase transparency.

On March 16, 2015, a story about a Six Nations incinerator project, in Ontario, emerged in the news involving a new “zero emissions” incinerator that was reportedly producing 200 times the acceptable provincial levels of toxins and carcinogens into the environment [6]. On March 19, 2015, the community held a meeting to discuss the issue [7]. Questions were left unanswered, and the inventor of the incinerator, John Kearns, did not even attend the meeting to provide any information [7]. This is an instance in which transparency is needed to decide what to do next, and yet it is lacking.

“So this is good. It’s not bad. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And we need a lot of sunlight in this troubled world.”

– Don Tapscott on transparency

Questioning the level of transparency for peer-reviewed papers is intended to protect researchers from excessive harassment. What the EIA process has that the research process lacks are the planned opportunities for those with access to the information and data to express their concerns. There are also more members participating in the EIA process compared to the number of members in a research team. We are in an age where this resistance only creates conflict. Proponents are finding it harder to fight transparency, as transparency in everyday life is becoming the norm. We no longer see transparency as a courtesy. It is becoming expected.

The following TEDtalk video has well-known author, management thinker and futurist Don Tapscott discuss where we, as a global community, are headed in terms of transparency:

[1] Kollipara P. 2015. Open records laws becoming vehicle for harassing academic researchers, report warns. In: News: Policy. Science Magazine. Electronically accessed: http://news.sciencemag.org/policy/2015/02/open-records-laws-becoming-vehicle-harassing-academic-researchers-report-warns

[2] Wang Q and Chen X. 2012. Regulatory transparency—How China can learn from Japan’s nuclear regulatory failures? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 16:3574–3578.

[3] Taylor & Francis Group. 2014. What is peer review? [Website] Taylor & Francis. http://journalauthors.tandf.co.uk/review/peer.asp

[4] O’Faircheallaigh C. 2010. Public participation and environmental impact assessment: Purposes, implications, and lessons for public policy making. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. 30: 19–27.

[5] Gibson RB. 2012. In full retreat: the Canadian government’s new environmental assessment law undoes decades of progress. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. 30(3):179-188.

[6] Green J. 2015. Six Nations incinerator polluting at up to 200 times Ontario limits. CBC News. March 16, 2015. Electronically accessed: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/six-nations-incinerator-polluting-at-up-to-200-times-ontario-limits-1.2931215

[7] Green J. 2015. Inventor skips Six Nations meeting about failed incinerator report. CBC News. March 20, 2015. Electronically accessed: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/inventor-skips-six-nations-meeting-about-failed-incinerator-report-1.3002484