Catching up with Canada’s chief science adviser — University Affairs

Molecular cardiologist Mona Nemer was first appointed Canada’s chief scientific adviser in 2017 to advise the federal government on scientific issues and science-based policy. Recently reappointed for another two years, she has a say college affairs about their plans for their next term and the importance of Open Science, emergency preparedness and the promotion of young talent.

Looking back over the past five years, what is your greatest achievement as chief scientist?

Well, to add a bit of humor, I think the greatest achievement is surviving five years. But it wasn’t long before I had to set up a new entity and define the job within a large system. I think we did well at least that part. We have the respect and trust of the government, both on the political side and from the top leadership of the civil service. And especially the external community. Establishing a solid network of scientific advice across government is something I think will be very important in the years to come.

I would say that our work on the Science Integrity Policy and the Roadmap for Open Science is also very important. The US is adopting a science integrity policy for its intramural science and it is heavily inspired by ours. The open science roadmap has been delayed a bit because of the pandemic, but I think it’s well received by the government now. And for years to come, one of our top priorities will be making sure that at least federally funded science, wherever it takes place in the country, is open.

The US recently announced that all government-funded science will soon be immediately accessible. Is Canada going the same way?

Absolutely. Open Science was one of the four key issues discussed at the last G7 Science Ministers Meeting, where I had the privilege of representing Canada. In my bilateral talks with the USA, we agreed that open science is definitely compatible with securing and protecting research. Here in Canada, we have shifted the benchmark in terms of intramural science and are now part of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee, which includes the Presidents of the Grant Council.

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It’s definitely a priority for us and we’ve been working with the US and our other partners. The Prime Minister announced two years ago that Canada would join Horizon Europe [the EU’s research funding program] as an associate member. And that assumes that the research funded by Horizon Europe is publicly available. So this is an international movement and hopefully we can speed up the deployment in Canada as well.

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They have a youth advisory group. What were some of the things from this group that influenced your work?

They made us aware of the impact of the pandemic on young people who are studying, whose internships have been interrupted, whose research has been interrupted and I think they influenced government action. But there were also a lot of conversations and exchanges about things that are very important to them, such as the environment. They were consulted by other organizations inside and outside the government. You wrote a memo for CIFAR [Canadian Institute for Advanced Research] to the next big ideas and questions. They also believe they have been working on a science and research strategy for Canada, which will hopefully be published later in September.

You’ve seen firsthand how science can influence policy. This gives them a better understanding of how governments work and where and in what form science and evidence can intervene.

The biggest topic that is currently affecting young scientists is the campaign to increase funding for doctoral students and postdocs. How important is it that young researchers get more support for their work?

I am very happy to say that I fully agree with their demands. The role of doctoral students and postdocs in the scientific ecosystem is not sufficiently recognized. They are the ones working in the lab and making discoveries. It is just totally unacceptable that society does not ensure that they receive proper compensation and living conditions because they already make a tremendous contribution to society. We have a problem when young people stop being interested in research – people don’t realize that research is slowing down significantly, if not stopping. If we value science and knowledge and research as a society, we need to back our words with action.

What role did the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor play in shaping the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I was fortunate to be involved with the role of Chief Scientific Advisor in national emergencies as soon as I took office. I looked mainly to the UK, which has a very well established system for scientific advice in emergencies called SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies]. And indeed we did a tabletop exercise with the UK and US in the summer of 2019 to see how they are doing this and how well prepared we are or not for something like this.

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Based on this exercise, I have made some recommendations to the government, including the establishment of a committee for scientific advice in emergencies. When we faced an emergency in early 2020, I decided to go ahead and set up a multidisciplinary committee that would advise me so I could in turn advise the government. It was a very different role than the public health authority because very quickly this health emergency had an impact on many other areas of government, be it border control, economy, transport, etc.

Were the prime minister and cabinet receptive to this advice, or did you have to play an active role in the discussions?

Well, I would say both. It’s my job to look ahead a bit and prepare the government for that. So I started to be proactive and later we were asked to look at specific areas like vaccinations and testing. Recently, the Minister of Health asked us to deal with Long COVID as well. It is for this reason that I say that I believe we have developed trust and respect and, on the whole, the Government has found our advice very useful.

A major problem in recent years has been the increase in scientific misinformation. How do you see your role in advocating science-based policy, fighting misinformation and building trust?

This is a complex subject, but I would say that overall the pandemic has helped us move forward. Many more people became sensitized to science and wanted to hear more about science. Many scientists and clinicians spoke to the public on major media outlets, sometimes answering questions directly from the public. We really need to build on that because it’s very important to be proactive and build public trust and improve public understanding of the scientific method so that the public can distinguish misinformation from the truth.

Of course, that’s not all. We will need more research in many areas, including sociology, psychology, and community-based research, to understand and relate to the diverse groups that fall prey to misinformation and disinformation.

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But one thing is certain: we need to redouble our dialogue with the public, realizing that the solution will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. People absorb information for different reasons and from different places. That’s why diversity is so important in science, because you want people to see people from your community, people who look like you, who also talk to you, so the trust factor is a lot bigger. And it’s not just pandemics. We’ve seen it with climate change, we’ve also seen it with the democratic process. This is something that needs to be approached very seriously and methodically.

What are your priorities for the next two years of this renewal, and why only two years?

Well, it’s very demanding. I look forward to serving the next two years and ensuring there is an orderly transition and that the government has time to recruit my successor.

Two years is not a long time but I believe we can build on the momentum we have started. It is a priority for my office to ensure we have an adequate country-wide open science regime, and then to support government efforts to strengthen Canada’s emergency preparedness capacity. In the mandate letter from the Minister for Emergency Preparedness, it calls on the Minister to work with the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor to ensure that science and scientific advice are properly integrated into preparedness and response. I think this strengthening of scientific advice to government and strengthening the capacity within government to receive scientific advice is a priority.

For example, I am very interested in continuing to work with our global affairs department to increase the presence of science in our international relations, to showcase the great science and innovation that is happening in Canada whenever we can and them to use diplomacy as a tool for our internationality. We see countries placing great emphasis on science, technology and innovation. We see it with the UK, we see it with the US, with China and so on. So we have to be present. We have to strengthen our system and present it nationally and internationally.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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