Q&A with Ontario’s first chief scientist, Dr Molly Shoichet
March 20, 2018
Last fall, Ontario named its first chief scientist after nearly a year-long search, selecting Dr Molly Shoichet, a biomedical scientist at Univ of Toronto. RE$EARCH MONEY spoke with her last month to learn more about what she and her team will be working on. An abbreviated and edited transcript of the conversation follows.
RE$EARCH MONEY: How are you moving forward with your mandate? How are you helping make science policy reflective of what matters to Ontarians?
Dr Shoichet: The mandate, as you know, is very broad. I look at it like three different buckets: One is around science for policy, that is, using the scientific method and evidence-based decisions to really enhance what we’re doing for Ontarians. All the people of Ontario would like our government to be doing the best that we could be doing for them with our programs and policies. That’s what the government wants to do as well. So, that’s a really big part of the mandate. I’ve been working with different groups across government to learn what they are doing. We already have a group in the Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat that's working on evidence-based decision-making … We have a strong base to work from. There’s co-collaborators and partners working with us.
The other bucket is policy for science or Ontario’s research agenda. That’s looking at what’s our investment in research -- whether it’s intramural or extramural research -- and trying to do the best for the people of Ontario in terms of our investment in research.
I think what’s really important for people to understand – and some people really get this – is that there’s a continuum between an investment in research (and a commercial product or service): that research turns into an invention; that is then an innovation, which is then commercialized. We’re all talking about the innovation economy, but we won’t have an innovation economy without first investing in research … You have to be continually inventing better processes or better solutions to whatever that problem is – whether it’s in machine learning and artificial intelligence or in medicine or the environment. We constantly have to be coming up with better solutions, and that requires consistent investment in research. That obviously is something that we want to make sure – that we’re spending our dollars and making our investments as best we can.
The third bucket is restoring public trust in science and enhancing Ontario’s brand for investments in the innovation ecosystem. We know that the high-tech companies that are either growing here or coming here are really dependent on access to talent and ideas. Again, that’s a reflection of investments in our research, in our ecosystem and education.
It’s a pretty broad mandate but I think all of them are what we want for the province of Ontario in terms of building the future.
R$: It took Ontario almost a year to name you as the first chief scientist. Do you feel any pressure to live up to people’s expectations?
Dr Shoichet: The short answer is yes. But it’s not just other people’s expectations about me; it’s also about my own expectations for myself and for our team -- a small, dynamic team.
This job is an advisory role. I really see this as waving the research flag. We've got a fantastic and dynamic team (in the Office of the Chief Scientist, Ontario) - a small team with big dreams. How do we execute on those dreams? We look at what impact we can make. How do we enhance our partnerships and bring experts together to come up with strategies that tackle common problems or common issues? One way is to bring people together, forge partnerships and break down silos, whether those silos are within government or between government and academia and industry.
If you think of this idea of enhancing public trust in science, that’s not going to be achieved by one person alone or even 20 people. That’s like mobilizing people all across the province and all around the world to change that perception. And that’s really hard to do.
R$: At the Univ of Toronto, you have the Shoichet Lab. How would you compare your work there with your work now as chief scientist?
Dr Shoichet: At Univ of Toronto, I’m not actually doing the experiments but leading the lab. I would say that one of the strengths I bring to this role (is the ability to) bring diverse people together from diverse backgrounds to solve common problems. For example, one of the big problems we’re working on is about blindness. How do we restore vision to people? It's a big problem, and we’re not going to do it just by us working alone. To solve that, we brought together the basic scientists, the biologists, together with the engineers and medical doctors. By bringing all of those different sectors together, we think we can make a difference and solve this huge problem. The analogy in government is we are trying to do things more efficiently and better …What we can do is come out of the trees and see the forest. We know now that we can bring different people together to solve that big problem.
R$: How does it feel to be working with Canada’s chief science advisor, Dr Mona Nemer, and Quebec’s chief scientist, Dr Rémi Quirion, and how does this network of top scientists advising government put Canada on the world stage when it comes to R&D and innovation?
Dr Shoichet: We are all on the same team. We all want to make Canada a great place for investments, and we all know each other from before we were chief scientists. That’s a little fortuitous but it’s also a nice basis because we already have that trust, knowing each other personally. Ontario and Quebec are economic powerhouses of Canada, and I was chatting recently with Rémi Quirion about how we can work together and be more effective in what we’re doing. We both agree that we’re not competing with (each other) and it’s the same federally; we’re competing with the rest of the world. We’re actively working on how to collaborate more effectively and build additional strengths. That's again that idea of partnerships.
The interview has been edited and condenses. The full Q&A is available online at http://….
Join Dr Shoichet, Dr Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science advisor and Andrew Applejohn, the Government of NWT’s senior science advisor, in a lively dinner talk on the future of science and policy making on April 10, 2018 as part of RE$EARCH MONEY’s annual conference in Ottawa from April 10-11, 2018. Join in the conversation on Twitter using #RM_Ott18.