"We're bordered by three oceans," says Mona Nemer of Canada, where she has been chief scientific adviser since September 2017. "On one side we are close to Europe, on the other we are close to Asia. It's a great country to study the Arctic, climate research, oceanography, but also astrophysics, information technology and health."
Nemer describes her role as "convener of the dialogue between the broader science community and government," providing scientific advice to current prime minister Justin Trudeau and his ministerial team, and making recommendations on how to improve Canadian science.
As a civil servant rather than an elected politician, how does she manage scientists' expectations, many of whom felt short-changed in this year's budget, compared to 2018?
“It wasn't as generous as last year's budget, but there was still quite a bit of investment." says Nemer. "It's really important that the government pays continuous attention to science and innovation. I prefer it this way, rather than CAN$10bn last year, and then zero this year.
"Those approaches are actually very disruptive to the research enterprise. It's much better to have sustained investment, and last year's budget was multi-year, so it committed increases not only for last year but the following four years. So there are increases that are still carrying over.”
Mona Nemer talks about science in Canada, why mentorship matters, and her campaign as a 17-year-old in Lebanon to get science taught at her all-girls school.
Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode is part of a Nature Spotlight on Canada, and our journalists at Nature Careers have investigated the country’s science spending as its political leadership has changed. The result is a look at how politics changes science and vice versa. So, I spoke to Dr Mona Nemer. She’s the Chief Science Adviser of Canada. I ask her about her role, her initial foray into a scientific career whilst a young girl at school in Lebanon, and the relationship between science and politics in Canada. Now, like me, I imagine you know that there is such a thing as a Chief Science Adviser, but you may not know what they actually do. So, that was one of the first things I asked Dr Nemer – was to give a brief overview of what her role entails.
No two days are the same. There is a lot of interaction outside the science community – various stakeholders, be it in the academic world or in the private sector. Of course, there is a mandate and it basically directs me to three areas of activities, which are quite broad and have within them a number of specific to-do lists, if you want.
So, the first one is to provide advice on request to the Prime Minister, Minister of Science and any minister who asks for it.
The second one is to make recommendations to improve the science internally within the government and the science advice mechanisms, so to be a coordinator, if you want, and a convener of advice.
The third one is to provide recommendations on how to improve science in Canada.
Last but not least, is to enhance the dialogue around science and improve science literacy in the country.
Now, you’ve actually been an advocate for science since you were very young. I read an article online in which you described that you actually had to push your school, when you were younger, to allow you to learn science. Is that correct?
Yes, so I was in an all-girls school, and at the time it wasn’t felt that girls actually needed to know more science than necessary because anyway they wouldn’t go into these areas.
Gosh, that’s such an outdated viewpoint now – at least I hope anyway.
Absolutely. Well, unfortunately it is still a view held in many places in the world. Thankfully, not in Canada or many of the western countries.
You instigated changes at your school as a girl, but what kind of changes would you like to see in Canadian science?
I want to see science play a much bigger role in Canada, in terms of both our domestic agenda but also in terms of our international agenda.
As you well know, science and technology are the determining factors for societal and economic progress in the twenty-first century, and I want to see Canada compete among the top nations for this.
Now, those are very lofty goals and well worth pursuing, but relationships between politics and science aren’t easy to navigate, and I know that in Canada, in the last few years, those relationships have been really tough.
So, how do you work with the politicians that you have to work with in order to make sure that those goals are reached?
If understood, science can be a great tool for achieving the objectives of most political leaders, which generally is the empowerment of the nation, improvement of the socioeconomic standards of the population.
So I think it’s important that there be understanding on both sides of what science can do and what science cannot do, and also in terms of what politicians can do and certainly what politicians should not do vis-à-vis science.
One of the things that I’m trying to do is try to engage as much as possible in dialogue and in understanding the objectives of various ministers and of the government as a whole, but also to be a convener of the dialogue between the broader science community and government – an ongoing relationship with realistic expectations.
The challenges of a long-term relationship are that people will need to work together for a long period of time, but governments come in and out fairly quickly, and I know you’ve got the upcoming general election in October later this year.
So, how do you form a long-term, positive relationship with a government that changes every few years where sometimes the team that steps in may have completely opposite views to the one that you’ve just been working with?
That’s why I think being able to change the culture of science and how science is viewed is really important, so that it becomes part of the landscape.
You’ve talked about some of the goals that you have for Canadian science – what, in your opinion, do you think is special about Canadian science?
Well, maybe what’s special about Canadian science starts with what’s special about the country. We’re bordered by three oceans, we’re on the one side close to Europe and on the other to Asia. And we do have open trade policies with North America, with Europe, with Asia, so in terms of research and innovation, Canada is a very attractive country. It’s a great country if you want to be studying the Arctic, if you want to be doing climate research, oceanography.
Also, historically, there have been very strong areas, namely in astrophysics, information technology and health as well. So, we have managed to basically create an environment that is actually conducive to research and development, in spite of the challenges, if you want, of our geography.
And you’ve mentioned some of your global neighbours – how international is your network and how often do you work with these people from the other continents and countries.
As we all appreciate, science is international. It’s been international before the words global and international became fashionable. And in terms of my work, there are, first of all, global networks of science advisers, so we do meet and coordinate advice, for example, in times of crisis, for the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN and other pieces of advice that are international in nature.
But beyond that, I’ve also been going a bit to different parts of the world to look at the possibilities for Canadians to use facilities, to establish better and stronger research networks internationally. And I guess last but not least, there is the science diplomacy peace as well, directly with our missions and our embassies around the world. So, actually the international dimension is quite important in my work.
How involved are you in terms of managing the expectations of scientists in Canada when it comes to things like budgets?
Managing expectations when it comes to budget is actually quite important because it’s a little bit part of the trust building and building the dialogue and understanding between the scientists and the decision-makers. So, the Fundamental Science Review that was chaired by Professor David Naylor – that’s now known at the Naylor report – actually was in many ways a roadmap for the country for multiple years, and it was important that the scientific community understands that it is for multiple years.
But it was equally important for me to press upon the government science is not a sort of one-time attention – that there is continued attention paid to science throughout government tenure so in every budget not just in one budget.
The 2018 budget was exceptional in the sense that it was actually labelled a science budget. The previous year, the budget was labelled an innovation budget which of course, had also a lot of investments in research and also in innovation. This year, this budget was labelled a skills budget, so it was more a people’s budget. But I’ll just say that last year’s budget committed over Can$4.5 billion for research plus an additional Can$2.7 billion which was a one-time only for science infrastructure – for buildings, for government, labs that are outdated. Well, this year’s budget, excluding the space strategy which actually commits Canada to 24 years of investment in space research and innovation, including participation in the Lunar Gateway, that was close to Can$800 million that was devoted.
So, in fact, if you added the few other investments in infrastructure, it’s close to Can$1 billion which was actually invested in research, mostly in student scholarships but also in allowing students to take 12 months parental leave, which is huge. There were also a number of other investments in specific areas like in stem cells, in brain research and enlarged infrastructures and unique facilities, in TRIUMF, for example. So, no, it wasn’t as generous, if you want, as last year’s budget but there was still quite a bit of investment and I think it’s really important that governments pay continuous attention to science and innovation and I prefer it this way rather than Can$10 billion last year and then zero this year.
That takes me back to a series we ran only recently with the Working Scientist podcast on funding, where we had one episode all about this concept of a boom-bust cycle, where funding booms due to political alarm based on something that’s going on and then fairly soon afterwards the money dries up and this area of science is forgotten about.
Absolutely, because those approaches of the boom and then nothing are actually very disruptive to the research enterprise as we all know it because it’s not sustainable, you can’t have a PhD student doing research for multiple years, you cannot build labs for multiple years, so I think it’s much better to have sustained investment even if it’s at a more modest level.
And of course, last year’s budget itself was multi years so it committed increases not only for last year but for the following four years, so there are increased investments in research that are still carrying over from last year’s decision.
Do you ever get wrongly referred to as being a politician? I know the Chief Scientific Adviser role isn’t a political role, but I imagine that sometimes you might be labelled as such.
Yeah, the Chief Science Adviser role is a non-political role. Automatically, there is a sort of political connotation to the role by virtue of the fact that I am the Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister and to the government. You do get mixed up and it’s not a good thing because this is what leads to changes in government wanting to change a position that is by definition apolitical and science should remain apolitical.
Mona, you’ve had a fantastic career so far and clearly, you’ve been keen and interested in science from a very young age, and one of the things that’s really important to us at Nature Careers is this concept of having a mentor to support you and guide you throughout your career. So, do you have any mentors that you had as a young scientist and throughout your career that you would like to talk about and do you have any advice on working with mentors?
Mentorship is critically important and it’s critical for everybody, but it’s certainly critical for underrepresented groups and certainly as a woman studying chemistry in my early career I didn’t see a lot of woman professors and researchers around. So, I was very, I guess, lucky that some of the male mentors around me were very supportive, they were quite inspiring.
So, my own PhD supervisor was a great outside-of-the-box thinker. He was bold, I would say, fearless. He simply wasn’t worried about pleasing everyone and he taught me to have self-assurance, to believe in myself and the science I’m doing, but also, he became a university president and later a senator, so in public life, like the House of Lords in England. So, throughout, I think he inspired me not only to do innovative science but also the importance of giving back, of supporting young and not-so-young researchers and research institutions above all. But the turning moment for me was actually meeting a great female scientist, Nicole Le Douarin, a French embryologist, and that was a turning point because up until then I knew I wanted to do science.
I was actually ready to sacrifice my personal life for that because I didn’t believe it was possible to have both, to have a life as a family, to have children and also to do competitive science.
But when I met her, she had managed to do that. That was a great inspiration and she became a great mentor and supporter for me and I really thank her for inspiring me to have balance in my life, I would say.
Wow, that’s great to have met someone to have really changed your mindset on a career like science.
Absolutely and this is why every day I feel such a great responsibility and obligation to be myself a mentor to the young female scientists around me and I impress upon them as well that at every stage of our career, whether we’re graduate students, whether we know it or not, we are role models and we can be mentors to the undergraduate and to the high schools student, and as we progress in our careers, we will always have the possibility and the obligation, in many ways, to be mentors and role models to the younger generations, and that’s something that is very dear to my heart.
Julie GouldThank you very much to Dr Mona Nemer, the Chief Science Advisor for Canada. You can find out more about the relationship between science and politics in the Nature Spotlight on Canada at nature.com/careers. But before you go, here’s a brief announcement about the new online resource for working scientists in Canada. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.
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