Q&A: Mona Nemer on the future of science advice in Canada

Lindsay Borthwick
August 31, 2022

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Mona Nemer, has been reappointed for two more years. She will continue to provide scientific advice to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Cabinet “so that science is considered in public policy decisions and that government science is fully available to Canadians,” according to the announcement.

Nemer stepped into the newly established role in 2017 and has built a team of policy advisors, a network of departmental science advisors, and a youth council. Early on, her office also developed a Model Policy on Scientific Integrity — a priority for the Liberal government following the muzzling of federal scientists during former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's terms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her team mobilized scientific experts across the country to provide advice on the pandemic response. Most recently, the Office of the Chief Science Advisor established a Task Force on Post COVID-19 Condition (PCC), which is dedicated to drafting a scientific roadmap to help the government meet the needs of Canadians with this ailment, also known as “long COVID."

As the beginning of her third term nears, Research Money spoke with Nemer about the pandemic's impact on science advice in government, her priorities, and where Canadian R&D can shine.

You’re about to start your third term. What have you not been able to accomplish in the past five years that you still hope to get done?

Five years is really a short time when you're creating something new. Nonetheless, I'm super proud that we've been able to put in place an organization that is trusted and respected by folks in government and outside of government.

The pandemic put a lot of things on the back burner as we mobilized to help the government manage this pandemic. But we are going to have to double down on a few things, like open science and embedding science advice in different departments with departmental science advisors.

I hate to say it this way, but the pandemic has helped us. It crystallized the need for a whole-of-government science advice approach, and demonstrated how important it is to have this role to serve as a convener and as a bridge between inside and outside government. We can see it in the most recent mandate letters that were provided to ministers. Science figures into practically all of them. For example, the Prime Minister actually directed the Minister of Emergency Preparedness to work with the Chief Science Advisor, to make sure that science is used in preparedness and response for future crises.

What science advice mechanisms were put in place during the pandemic that should outlast it, because they really worked for COVID and could help the government address other major challenges that require scientific leadership and expertise?

That is an excellent question because none of this existed before the pandemic. And this is why it's one of my important priorities to make sure that we have a well-organized system that we can call upon for science advice in an emergency.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I put in place a multidisciplinary expert advisory group. At the time, the science and the evidence on COVID-19 was practically non-existent. We needed to draw lessons from similar events, contextualize them, and so on. The experts were super helpful at identifying, very early on, issues that the pandemic would bring about, including domestic violence, the relationship between employers and employees, the implications for the post-secondary sector, etc.. And they were instrumental in the management of the pandemic.

We learned that people are very eager to help, whether it's the private sector or academics. But there were also too many advisory groups. I found myself having to be part of all of them just to maintain some cohesion and harmony, which is a less than ideal scenario and also unsustainable. So the process needs to be formalized and streamlined.

Aside from COVID-19, what has been your greatest challenge in doing your job and fulfilling your mandate?

The major challenge has been bringing a small organization into a big organization. The most important thing was to get accepted, not rejected. That required, I think, a lot of commitment to the position and a lot of internal diplomacy to make people see the value of this new role within government, and that it was there to support the existing structures and not compete with or replicate them.

I'm quite pleased by the progress. People within government are reaching out to our office. For example, people at Global Affairs see its value — how we help with science diplomacy, and how we help attract attention to research and innovation. That, of course, helps trade and helps our priorities as a country and internationally. We're also working collaboratively and closely with Environment and Climate Change Canada to showcase Canadian science and environmental research at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference. So these are really important advances. We hope that they become established traditions, and that science becomes a default reflex in many parts of government.

Beyond establishing those kinds of traditions, are there changes that can be put in place that would allow your office and the place of science advice in general to have a greater impact in government?

Look, it's clear that it would be extremely helpful if the office and the position were framed in legislation and were to become a permanent fixture of government. That would properly establish the office, the mandate, the responsibilities, the connectivity with other parts of government in peacetime and also crisis times.

The pandemic also highlighted the need to modernize a number of our research structures and science advice mechanisms. We have great structures that work in normal times, but when the fire is burning, it's not the time to ask, who's supposed to find the hose, and who's supposed to be turning the water on? So we need to have a well-established process and approach to conducting mission-oriented science that is needed during emergencies and for integrating that advice. We will be producing recommendations on how to enhance the science advice system in emergencies, but also the ability of governments really to receive and act on advice.

Lastly, given the competition we’re seeing globally, where does Canada have an opportunity to distinguish itself in R&D?

This is the time to double down on our efforts and support for R&D. We haven’t seen such a race for science and technology as we're seeing today since the Second World War. So if we're not up there with the leaders in all the key areas, I think the country and all Canadians will suffer. We've seen that during the pandemic. If we're unable to make masks, if we're unable to produce vaccines, it has a huge cost to human health and it has a huge cost to the economy. So the government’s Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy is essential and we’ve committed to it as part of the G7.

For advanced technologies, whether it's quantum, AI, or physics in general, we need to push the boundaries and we need to make sure that our industries are ready to take advantage of their benefits.

I also see huge opportunities for Canada on the social sciences side. We live in a polarized world where social cohesion is going to be increasingly important in all democracies. Whether we're talking about behavioral sciences, communications, psychology, sociology… these are going to have huge effects on whether society will accept these new technologies.

Everybody's after Canada for our minerals but also for our gray matter. We're a science superpower and we need to start using it and showcasing it a lot more. So I see a big opportunity and a challenge for all governments to step up to the plate and be there in these very important times.


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