A Conversation with Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor
One year into her inaugural three-year term, Dr. Mona Nemer remains fiercely committed to her new role of providing science advice to the federal government and championing the power of science to enhance Canadian society and the economy.
Nemer made her second CSPC appearance in as many years as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA). Her diverse mandate began with “a year of learning” as she crisscrossed the country and traveled internationally to meet with stakeholders, engage with government and speak with the public and the media.
“I did not know what I was getting myself into but I can also tell you that I don’t regret a single moment. It’s been a fantastic year,” she told a packed audience during a luncheon presentation and Q&A with CSPC CEO Mehrdad Hariri. “(The science and technology community) helped us collectively as a community to get our message across to decision makers and to start a constructive dialogue with our colleagues on the policy side.”
Nemer provided several snapshots of her first year, all of which will be covered in greater detail in her first annual report.
“(My) mandate asked me to provide advice and we have provided science advice… One is drafting a model scientific integrity policy which we did with the science union (Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada) and the Treasury Board of Canada,” Nemer explained. “We now have a code of conduct not only for scientists but also for employers that defines how science ought to be conducted in the absence of any undue influence and also the responsibilities of the scientists themselves and their freedom to communicate about their research with their community and with the public in general.”
The CSA was also asked by Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, to lead an expert panel on aquaculture and report on the “appropriate use and consideration of scientific evidence in protecting the marine environment in decision-making.”
Nemer has launched a longer-term initiative to encourage the federal government’s departments and agencies to appoint departmental science advisors to assist them in pulling together science advice from diverse fields on an as-needed basis. The appointments are now being made and will result in a departmental science advisory network that augments existing science advisory expertise.
“I found the UK model interesting … having a network that works with government science advisors which provides technical expertise and a broader network,” said Nemer. “With support from the Minister of Science I have recommended that we deploy such a network and we have several departments who have already hired or are in the process of hiring.”
Nemer explained that short-term advice also falls within the CSA mandate, such as providing input on the implementation of science and research initiatives funded in the 2018 federal budget. The budget plan announced $6.4 billion in new funding for scientific research, technology and business innovation assistance, setting off a flurry of activity to determine how the money would be spent within the government’s guidelines. Nemer noted that the Budget “generated a lot of work after that” but that she was honoured to be part of a team developing recommendations for implementation.
Beyond her duties of providing advice, Nemer has also spent considerable time helping to raise the public profile of science and research, both as an exciting career opportunity and as a tool to further social and economic objectives.
“I was pleased to participate in many events like Let’s Talk Science and [others that enhance] science understanding,” she said. One very successful event was the launch of Science meets Parliament, a partnership with CSPC that brings scientists to Parliament Hill to meet with MPs and Senators. “I would like to encourage everyone to maintain an active dialogue with all our elected officials and decision makers.”
Less visible but no less critical is the CSA’s work within the federal research ecosystem to encourage greater collaboration and multidisciplinary activity. Nemer participated on the new Canada Research Coordinating Committee to establish a coordinated approach to research funding and activities related to the new $275-million Tri-Council Research Fund.
“It is a great priority for our government to see that science and research is conducted in a multidisciplinary manner and that we are actually removing the silos and carrying out research and science as needed in the 21st century,” said Nemer. “(This) requires team approaches, multidisciplinarity and reaching across borders, be it physical country borders and our own institutions.”