What does Canada's chief science advisor do?

Saif Alnuweiri
Dr. Mona Nemer is introduced as Canada’s new chief science advisor on Parliament Hill . Photo from CBC

Justin Trudeau announced today that Dr. Mona Nemer, a University of Ottawa professor, would be Canada’s new chief science advisor. But what does the job entail?

According to the job posting, the chief science advisor is a multi-faceted position that includes interacting with the government, scientists and the public. It’s a crucial role that ensures transparency between all three parties involved, helping keep Canadians aware of the science that backs their government’s decisions and ensures that the public remains knowledgeable on scientific matters.

In their work with the government, the advisor reports directly to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. The Liberal government campaigned on a platform that included a commitment to evidence-based policymaking, in contrast with the Conservative government that shuttered the position in 2008 and barred Canada’s scientists from speaking publicly about their work.

The advisor will also be an advocate for government scientists to speak freely about their work, ensuring that the decisions and policies that are pursued by the government are backed by scientific analysis, such as climate change.

Equally as important, however, a science advisor keeps an eye out for any new advancements in the field that may impact the way government legislates. Knowledge of fields of science outside the specialization of the advisor is considered essential.

The position is all the more important given polls showing that a third of Canadians think that science is a matter of opinion, rather than verifiable facts. And as the chief science advisor, part of the Nemer’s new task will be to create guidelines to ensure that federally-funded science is available to the public, and hopefully, increase public interest in the field.

In this regard, Canada will be well served by Nemer, who was formerly the vice president of research at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Molecular Genetics and Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory. More than just being an academic, she has served in several advisory committees and boards which has prepared her for her upcoming endeavour.

The prior chief science advisor was Dr. Arthur Carty, who served during the entirety of the position’s first run, from 2004-2008. Carty was an organometallic chemist who was a professor and program chair at the University of Waterloo, ran the National Research Council Canada from 1994 to 2004 and represented Canada at international forums for science ministers and advisors.

During his tenure as chief science advisor, he helped create the Council of Canadian Academies and initiated consultations on how major science initiatives should seek funding in Canada. The position was shuttered after the Conservative government said the role would be best served by a council that included industry executives.