Top scientist’s impact in Ottawa
Mona Nemer helps politicians find the scientific evidence they need to make major decisions
OTTAWA—CANADA’S chief science adviser admits her first year on the job was not exactly what she’d expected.
“I survived,” Mona Nemer says, laughing. “It was an exciting year. Lots of things to learn. In many ways it was a great job offer because it didn’t have any to-do list. It was just very broad and you could define the position.”
Her role, she says, is not to be a lobbyist. She isn’t there to tell politicians or public servants what to think or what decisions to make. Since September 2017, her job has been to help them find the scientific evidence they need to make decisions.
But first, Nemer says, she’s had to figure out how decisions get made at all.
Nemer, 61, is soft-spoken, her English precise but slightly accented. Born and raised in Lebanon, she moved to Kansas for university and ended up at Mcgill University in Montreal more than three decades ago for grad school.
Seated in the board room in the suite of offices assigned to her and her staff of 15, Nemer clutches a white coffee mug stamped with the words: “I’m a scientist. What’s your superpower?”
With a PHD in bio-organic chemistry, she has been in the “I can certainly say that they’ve listened,” says Canada's Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer of the politicians she works with.
lab as a cardiac gene specialist, helping isolate genes that contribute to certain heart conditions. Her work helped develop diagnostic tests for heart failure and birth defects. She has held a Canada research chair and for more than a decade she was the vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa.
But she had never spent much time inside a government.
“Simplistically, I thought there was a place you just weigh in and make sure things are happening but it’s actually much more complex than this,” she says. “It turned out that actually my broad mandate and some of the specifics
that I was tasked with were easier said than done.”
Canada hadn’t had a science adviser for almost a decade. The former science-adviser position existed between 2004 and 2008 but was abolished when Stephen Harper was prime minister. Nemer’s office had to be built from the ground up.
Still, Nemer says she is already seeing evidence her informal meetings with ministers and deputies and the questions she answers during her lab tours with government researchers are having an effect.
“I can certainly say that they’ve listened,” says Nemer.
More at thestar.com/canada