Dr. Mona Nemer: Canada’s top scientist reflects on her role providing advice to national leaders
Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2022
By David McFadden
To say it’s been a busy time for Dr. Mona Nemer is a huge understatement. For nearly five years, the distinguished cardiovascular researcher and professor at uOttawa Faculty of Medicine has been Canada's chief science advisor, providing expert advice to the prime minister and other federal decision-makers on a dizzying range of issues.
Think about it: Not only did Dr. Nemer and a small staff reinvent the position from scratch starting in 2017 (Canada's first chief science advisor was appointed in 2004; the job was axed in 2008), but her tenure has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, a world-transforming phenomenon that’s reshaped everyone’s lives and is hardly over.
I'm super proud of the work that we’ve managed to do in the pandemic. You know, the office and the chief science advisor role was not well defined in terms of their mandate in an emergency. Nonetheless, we were very proactive and really managed to make the connections that helped us inform decision-making and certainly inform science priorities for the country in terms of the pandemic research,” she says.
Her second term as Canada’s top scientist concludes in late September. While her knowledge, thoughtful demeanor, and ability to boil down data into layman’s terms have made her a trusted source for policymakers, she’s also advised federal officials about ways to ensure government science is fully available to the public.
“I profoundly believe in open science and transparency – and in not underestimating the public,” says Dr. Nemer, born and raised in Lebanon. “I think the public has shown us great resilience, and also great interest in science and in understanding it. So I think we need to continue this dialogue and this momentum with the public.”
To be sure, the general public has been getting an education in how the data-driven scientific process actually works amid the complexities and uncertainties of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, many people have grasped and appreciated what science truly is – a fluid and iterative process.
Yet a misinformation ecosystem is also thriving amid the crisis as people seek definitive answers about what is actually evolving science. Armchair epidemiologists, conspiracy cranks, and falsehood-spreading bots have gone into overdrive. For some individuals unfamiliar with the scientific process, the constantly mutating virus and changing public health guidance fueled mistrust of science and expertise in general.
Dr. Nemer stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown the importance of science literacy. And she says it offers many lessons for effectively tackling other critical scientific matters vulnerable to politicization, such as climate change.
Science literacy is not really about knowing the intricacies of biology or the terminology of physics or chemistry, she explains. “No, science literacy is really about understanding the process of science, about understanding the fundamentals and principles of what’s a credible publication or what’s a credible source.”
Recognizing credibility and expertise is critical when evaluating information, particularly when it deals with interpretation and extrapolation.
“We have lots of people, lots of true experts that I really salute because they've done an outstanding job in terms of public communication. But we've also had people – sort of self-described experts – providing their interpretation of the science, their interpretation of the care. And that was very confusing,” she says. “So moving forward, I think that we need to continue this dialogue with the public and this information sharing, you know, explaining to them how you recognize experts from non-experts.”
While she’s had numerous experiences in her ongoing advisory post, the key role she played in developing a “model policy on scientific integrity” to guide the conduct of federal scientists, departments, and employees is something she’s particularly proud of. This policy also ensures that Canada’s federal scientists are free to speak openly about their work, and that freedom is shielded from interference.
“People perhaps underestimate how important it is. But now the U.S. is in the midst of doing what we did before. We managed really to pull it together in record time,” Dr. Nemer says of the pioneering policy.
There’s more trouble on the horizon with supporting science in Canada: The last federal budget provided no increase for CIHR and other research funding agencies. When asked about the budget decision, the country’s chief science advisor described it as “disappointing.”
“I have to say that I am concerned at our decreasing support for science in terms of GDP. And also how we're ranking relative to other nations. So even if we were maintaining the same level of investment and support for research, if other countries are further increasing their support, that means that we're falling behind,” she says.
Dr. Nemer, a former vice president of research at the University of Ottawa, notes there’s a persistent myth that basic research is well supported, so innovation must dominate the government’s investment focus. Basic research is the work to understand the fundamental principles of science.
“But you cannot dissociate innovation from basic research. To start, it's the next innovators and the next workers and innovative companies who are being trained in basic research labs. So that needs to be a continuum. You can’t say ‘I've invested enough in basic research, now I'm investing in innovation.’ This continued way of investing and thinking is unhelpful,” she says.
With her eye on the future, she says there needs to be ongoing pedagogy with both Canadian politicians and senior public servants so they understand the necessity of basic research when seeking to boost commercially applicable innovations. “We're not there yet in terms of this understanding. It takes a while, people move around, and politicians come and go. We need to be in it for the long term.”
Dr. Nemer is hopeful a successor will continue this important advisory work.
“I was of course, very, very honoured to be chosen to set up the office of the chief science advisor, which I'm very much hoping will become a fixture in the Canadian landscape. You know, it's a position that I think is very important for the country,” she says.
What’s next on the horizon for the uOttawa researcher recognized for her important discoveries in cardiac biology now that she’s served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s go-to for scientific advice? It’s likely back to her lab at the Faculty of Medicine.
“Two years of undivided attention by the research community on COVID has left a lot of needs in terms of the other major human diseases. So yes, it would be good to be back to working on the heart,” she says with a smile.
Banner photo credit: Adam Scotti / Office of the Prime Minister