External Technical Reviews

Contents


1. Purpose and Scope of Document

This document provides information on external technical reviews for federal impact assessments (IAs). It includes information on how, and in what circumstances, the Agency or a Review Panel may wish to conduct an external technical review for a federal IA.

External technical reviews may be used for projects being assessed under the Impact Assessment Act (IA Act) or those that will continue under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012).

2. Context

An important step in the assessment process is the review of science and evidence by relevant experts within the federal government. External technical reviews are an additional tool that can be used by the Agency or a Review Panel, consistent with subsections 26(2) and 52(2) of the IA Act or, in the case of projects continuing under CEAA 2012, subsections 23(2) and 44(2) of CEAA 2012, to support the scientific reviews conducted by federal experts. They are one of a number of initiatives being implemented to ensure that the science and evidence used in IAs is rigorous, credible, and transparent.

External technical reviews are a mechanism through which the most difficult science issues related to a designated project may be examined by independent experts. In this context, science is understood to include natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, and other technical topics as applicable. Independent experts are defined as individuals external to the federal government with specific technical expertise, who have no direct conflict of interest. External technical reviews will be used, as required, to help resolve major issues of concern. The Agency or Review Panel will consider a number of factors in making a determination that an External technical review is warranted, which is discussed further in Section 4.2. By having independent experts review science used in IAs and making their findings public, External Technical Reviews can be viewed as a form of peer review.

‘Peer review’Footnote 1 can be defined as “a review of technical or scientific merit by individuals with sufficient technical competence and no unresolved conflict of interest.” ‘Peers’ are experts who “have qualifications and expertise equivalent to those of the researcher whose work they review” and who are “capable of making an independent judgement of the merits and relevance of the research.”

3. Objectives of External Technical Reviews

The objectives of External technical reviews are to:

  1. complement existing review processes by federal experts and participants in an IA process to ensure a high standard of technical evaluation is applied to science in IAs;
  2. provide an additional mechanism to access external technical expertise and a diversity of perspectives during the IA process, when required;
  3. provide review panels with another tool, in addition to their capacity to retain a single independent expert, to access independent expertise; and
  4. improve public confidence that evidence produced in IA processes is based on robust and reliable science and analysis.

4. Operation of External Technical Reviews

4.1 Timing of external technical reviews

An external technical review may be launched during the Impact Assessment Phase of a designated project, in advance of the Minister’s decision on public interest as per subsection 60(1) of the IA Act. External technical reviews will be conducted within the timelines as set out in the IA Act and its regulations. In the case of projects continuing under CEAA 2012, an external technical review may be launched in advance of decisions of the decision maker as per subsection 52(1) and will be conducted within the timelines as set out in CEAA 2012 and its regulations.

4.2 Considerations in determining whether an external technical review is warranted

The factors below will be considered by the Agency or Review Panel in determining the necessity to undertake an External Technical Review, in keeping with subsections 26(2) and 52(2) of the IA Act or, in the case of projects continuing under CEAA 2012, subsections 23(2) and 44(2) of CEAA 2012. The Agency or Review Panel may request the advice of federal expert departments in making a determination on the necessity for an external technical review.

Issues examined through an external technical review will be project-specific, but this tool is not intended to be used for every IA. The following factors will be considered by the Agency or a Review Panel in making a determination that an external technical review is warranted for a specific project-related question:

  1. there are major issues of importance related to a designated project including environmental, social, health, and economic issues;
  2. there are substantial differences of scientific findings regarding a specific science-related question;
  3. there is a novel issue or approach on which there is little existing information;
  4. there is a lack of federal expertise; and / or
  5. there is a high degree of uncertainty due to lack of data, lack of experience or intended use of a new technology that would benefit from review by independent experts.

4.3 Initiating and preparing for an external technical review

An external technical review can be initiated by the Agency or a Review Panel. Once initiated, the Agency or Review Panel will seek comments from the project proponent, relevant lifecycle regulators, federal expert departments, Indigenous groups and others, on the science question(s) to be posed to the independent experts. The input received will be considered in finalizing the question(s).

For IAs conducted by the Agency, the independent experts will be chosen by the Agency. Qualifications of the experts will be verified by the Agency in consultation with relevant federal expert departments, as required.

In the case of an IA by Review Panel, the Review Panel must adhere to the terms of reference of the Panel in preparing for an external technical review. The Review Panel will select the independent experts and may request the help of the Agency in identifying prospective experts. In the case of an integrated IA review with lifecycle regulators, the Review Panel may request the help of the Agency and relevant lifecycle regulator in identifying prospective experts. Qualifications of the experts will be verified by the Review Panel.

Roughly two to four independent experts will be selected to undertake an external technical review. One of the experts will be designated as the chair and will be responsible for the conduct of the review and any associated meeting(s). The Agency or Review Panel will need to ensure that there are no direct conflicts of interest for any of the independent experts.

4.4 What is reviewed during external technical review

An external technical review can encompass any documents or information generated in the IA process, related to an identified scientific issue (e.g., relevant components of the detailed project description, impact statement, etc.). Scientific input related to the issue and provided to the Agency or Review Panel by other participants in the IA may also be provided to inform the review.

Elements that could be examined by an external technical review include:

  1. the quality of evidence collection procedures and methods;
  2. the reasonableness of predicted impacts and judgements made from the available evidence; and
  3. the level of risk and/or the degree of uncertainty.

In cases where the information under review (i.e. data, analyses, or methodologies) is specific to the mandate of a federal authority or lifecycle regulator, and that authority already has its own third party review process (e.g., the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat at Fisheries and Oceans Canada), that process may be used in place of an external technical review. The decision to use the review process of a federal authority or lifecycle regulator will be made after a discussion with that relevant authority. Results of these third party reviews will be made public. External technical reviews would not review information that has recently been assessed by third party review processes.

4.5 External technical review

The chair, who is one of the independent experts, is responsible for the conduct of the review and associated meeting(s). Meeting summaries will be developed and approved by the independent experts before they are posted on the Agency’s IA Registry. Meetings can take place face-to-face, by teleconference or by virtual meetings. Experts will be expected to review documents prior to meetings.

Independent experts will be paid an honorarium for their participation in the process and reimbursed for travel expenses in accordance with National Joint Council guidelines.

4.6 Outcome of the external technical review

A report and plain language summary will be produced by the experts involved in the external technical review. There may not always be consensus, but through the review, the reasons for differences of opinion among independent experts will be clearly characterized and explained. This will help those involved in the IA determine how the information should be considered.

The report and plain language summary will be considered as input to the Agency or Review Panel in the preparation of the IA report, be part of the project file for the designated project and be posted on the IA Registry. For review panels, in keeping with their terms of reference, the findings of an external technical review will be considered as part of the record of the review, and the independent experts would be available for questioning at the public hearing, if required by the Review Panel.

The Agency or Review Panel will review any comments received from the proponent, stakeholders, and Indigenous groups on the external technical review report so that they are considered in the development of the IA report.

5. Roles and Responsibilities

For IAs conducted by the Agency, the Agency is responsible for identifying the question(s) to be examined, identifying and selecting independent experts with no direct conflicts of interest, ensuring that all relevant information related to the issue is submitted to the experts, organizing meetings and translation services, and managing expenses related to meetings (reimbursements and honoraria). The Agency is also responsible for keeping records related to external technical reviews as part of the project file. The Agency’s function is that of a secretariat role for the experts, and any findings or outcomes of the review meeting(s) are the opinions of the independent experts to be considered by the Agency.

In the case of an IA by Review Panel, the Review Panel is responsible for notifying all participants of their intent to use an external technical review. If an external technical review is to be conducted for an IA by review panel, the review panel would select the independent experts and may request the help of the Agency in this regard. In the case of an integrated IA review with lifecycle regulators, the review panel may seek the advice of the Agency and relevant lifecycle regulator in identifying prospective experts. The review panel is responsible for the conduct of the meeting(s), and the number of meetings required will be at their discretion. The review panel is also responsible for considering any written responses to the results of an external technical review that may be submitted by the proponent, Indigenous people, the public, or others engaged in the IA. The review panel must act on these responsibilities in a manner consistent with their terms of reference.

In all cases, the Agency is responsible for ensuring that external technical reviews are conducted within legislated timelines.

Upon request, federal expert departments and lifecycle regulators are responsible for assisting the Agency or Review Panel in making a determination on the need for an external technical review and informing the question(s) to be posed to the independent experts. The Agency may also request the assistance of the federal expert departments in identifying potential independent experts. The federal expert departments may provide comments on the external technical review report developed by the external experts.

External experts are responsible for adhering to a terms of reference, participating in meetings, providing any documentation necessary to support their views (e.g., references or journal articles), preparing meeting summaries, and providing a report and plain language summary, which would be posted on the IA Registry. The terms of reference will state that they will need to declare any real or potential conflicts and that they will act in an unbiased manner. External experts who participate in external technical reviews do not serve in an official decision-making capacity. Their roles are restricted to their evaluation of specific science and technical questions. However, their recommendations and advice will be taken into consideration by Agency staff or Review Panels in conducting the IA.

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