Top sci­en­tist’s im­pact in Ot­tawa

Mona Ne­mer helps politi­cians find the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence they need to make ma­jor de­ci­sions

StarMetro Vancouver - - THE FEED - Mia Rabson

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.

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