CSA's first 100 days reveal overwhelming appetite from government for science advice

Veronica Silva
February 28, 2018

The honeymoon is over and the Chief Science Advisor is getting right down to business. But it was a jam-packed 100 days for Dr Mona Nemer, who was appointed last fall as Canada’s first chief science advisor (CSA) 10 years after the previous Conservative government eliminated the position and dismissed her predecessor, Dr Arthur Carty.

In an open letter addressed to her bosses, prime minister Justin Trudeau and Science minister Kirsty Duncan, Nemer details how she has progressed to fulfill her mandate during her first 100 days in office. She breaks the mandate into two elements: promote a dialogue among government and academic scientists, and raise public awareness of scientific issues.

Like new beginnings, the first days weren’t without challenges. Nemer notes that the reinstatement of the function of the chief science advisor was welcomed overwhelmingly by the scientific community and beyond. However, it came with high hopes and expectations.

“I just want to make sure that people don’t think that I’m going to achieve the very ambitious terms of my mandate in my first year because there’s a lot of cultural change that we’re dealing with, both in terms of the science within and outside of government,” she says.

Nemer tells RE$EARCH MONEY that the biggest challenge she had was juggling so many things at the same time. All the hard work happened simultaneously – recruiting staff, getting to know the bureaucracy, reaching out to and hearing from stakeholders in the ecosystem, getting tips and sharing notes with colleagues at the provincial, territorial and international levels, and of course, giving advice to the federal government.

Science historian Paul Dufour, who worked with Carty when he was the national science adviser, tells RE$EARCH MONEY that the first three months of a new job in government are really about getting staff and figuring out how government works or doesn’t work.

“You have to give her a chance to get her office in order,” he says. But what’s critical is what happens in the next three months, he adds, “because that’s where she’s going to start showing evidence of the things she’s laid out in the letter.”

Nemer said in the letter that she observed that “horizontal collaboration” is happening in government as “increasingly, government decision-making requires scientific input from various departments.” But she added these connections can further be “enabled by harmonization of policies and guidelines impacting research and by review of existing systemic impediments.”

Nemer, who was professor and VP for research at Univ of Ottawa before her appointment, likens government to her experience in universities, where "departments developed in a vertical manner, and it used to be that the issues of the day could be best dealt with within the department.” Now, however, she believes the trend is towards a multidisciplinary and multi departmental approach.

In her letter, Nemer says that one of her priorities in the coming months is to review and recommend science advisory mechanisms in government. She notes that there is an overwhelming number of requests for her advice from departments which have not historically been prominent in science, including Transport Canada, Global Affairs and Justices, as well as from all different levels of government. There is so much demand, combined with a overall feeling of people being “extremely open” to scientific advice, that she’s considering the merits of having “science advisory capacity in all federal departments, such as departmental chief scientists or equivalents.”

Nemer says the UK model, where a CSA is supported by a network of advisers from different departments, is something that she’s looking into, because “it’s certainly more challenging for one adviser, even with the best connections, to fulfill the very ambitious mandate that the government has given me.” But she adds that Canada’s advisory system must be grounded in the uniquely Canadian context.

Dufour believes that a network of departmental science advisors is the way to go. “There’s a lot of expectations (from the CSA). A science adviser is not going to solve everybody’s problems.”

Some advisory needs are major. For example, Nemer will lead the newly created Independent Expert Panel on Aquaculture Science requested by Dominic LeBlanc, minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard. The expert panel is expected to make recommendations on the use of scientific evidence to help protect the marine environment.

Though it’s still too early to assess the impact of her advice on government decision-making, Nemer says she’s confident it “hasn’t been brushed off.”

Nemer states in her letter that in engaging with the stakeholders, Canada's Fundamental Science Review, or the Naylor report, continued to be a “centre of attention.” The report recommended up to a $1.3 billion increase in funding over four years to support fundamental research through the three granting councils – Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

Nemer says Finance minister Bill Morneau “did reach out to me and we had a very good conversation. He was very engaged when I had a conversation with him.”  Yesterday's budget proves that someone was listening.

Nemer adds there are other recommendations in the Naylor report aside from the funding. One of her priorities is to advise on the governance and management of major science infrastructure. A recommendation in the report calls on the CSA to create a special committee to review major research facilities.

This priority is good news for universities “given that many of Canada’s big science facilities are on university campuses,” says Pari Johnston, VP of policy and public affairs at Universities Canada. “We look forward to engagement with the Chief Science Advisor on this initiative.”

Young scientists also welcome Nemer’s priorities, particularly how she’s including youth in her deliberations.

“As students, we also applaud Nemer's commitment to the development of young talent in Canadian science, and we hope to see their emerging expertise incorporated into science advice," says Shawn McGuirk, a McGill Univ PhD candidate and co-president of Science & Policy Exchange (SPE), a graduate student group.

Dufour notes that Nemer has become a role model for young students, early career scientists and researchers and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The CSA also plays an important role internationally. Nemer has already observed that the international scientific community is looking towards Canada and has high expectations. Dufour says that with the appointment of a CSA, Canada is signaling that science and evidence are important in decision-making, and Nemer is “in a good position to brand Canada as a leader.”


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