Mona Nemer
Credit: Peter Thornton, Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada

Pandemic-Preparedness, Collaboration, and Representation: A Conversation with Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada's Chief Science Advisor

Science Advisor Questions science advice Canada Americas

Dr. Mona Nemer has served as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor since 2017. In this role, she advises Canada’s Prime Minister and Cabinet on issues related to science and has represented Canada at G7 science meetings and other international science forums. Prior to this role, Dr. Nemer was Professor and Vice President of Research at the University of Ottawa and Director of the school’s Molecular Genetics and Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory. A leader in the field of molecular cardiology, she has contributed to the development of diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of cardiac birth defects. She is the author of over 200 academic publications and has trained more than 100 students from various countries. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from McGill University and did postdoctoral training in Molecular Biology at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute and Columbia University.

The conversation with Dr. Mona Nemer is part of a series of interviews with national science advisors who attended the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The interview with Dr. Mona Nemer by Dr. Kim Montgomery took place on Sunday, March 5, 2023.

Montgomery (interviewer): What are the most pressing scientific issues that governments are facing? How are you adapting to the increasing complexity and changing nature of those global challenges? What are some mechanisms that a science advisor has at his or her disposal to highlight the role of science in addressing those global challenges and to elevate the role of science in foreign policy more generally?

Nemer: One of the most pressing challenges we are facing today is the increased need for pandemic preparedness. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven just how significant this is, as it has highlighted issues of health, food security, and much more. We need to learn from this and determine how we can better respond to future health crises. Another pressing challenge is the climate crisis, which will not improve unless we act together. Beyond rising temperatures, extreme weather, and other environmental threats, the climate crisis also has serious impacts on health, food and water security, social cohesion, and migration of populations. The environmental threats exacerbate these humanitarian issues, and vice versa. We therefore find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle.

These two issues affect all of humanity regardless of borders, even if different populations are affected differently. They are also similar in that their solutions will require data and science input which must come from international collaborations. Some of the solutions we already have, others must be scaled, and others have yet to be discovered.

Now, where do science advisors fit into all of this? We bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers. We serve as a voice for science in government, representing the entire scientific enterprise, which has many facets. We therefore must work collaboratively to understand the whole picture.

Montgomery: Science encompasses a huge array of issues, including technology, health, environmental concerns, and much more. As a scientific advisor, you have to represent the entirety of this massive and complex field on a national scale. How do you approach this daunting task? What experience and skills are required? What advice would you give someone interested in preparing themselves to be eligible for this role in the future?

Nemer: It is a daunting task, and I first must clarify that no scientist knows everything, and, in turn, no science advisor knows everything. As a science advisor, you must look at all of the dimensions of particular policies that require scientific input. From there, you must be humble about what you know and what you do not know… and when you are unsure, you must seek the advice of those with the needed expertise. As scientists, it is part of our training and part of the scientific method to consult with others like this rather than working in vacuums.

When consulting with experts, it is important to ask the right questions, so you need to do some research yourself. You must both listen to their answers and challenge them in order to move toward a solution. Then, after consulting with several experts and drawing conclusions, you have to determine what resources are required to reach that solution. Then, you have to put all of this work and research into something that is digestible for the population, as most people do not have a scientific background. It’s important to ensure they understand the situation if you want their support.

It is therefore crucial for a science advisor to have a network of experts that they can reach out to, and not only from their own country. But thanks to advances in technology, it is easier than ever to connect with the right people who can be anywhere in the world. During the pandemic, I was in constant touch with my counterpart science advisors, helping each other identify experts in different countries that could help us. It is significant to note the plural here: you must find several experts who can provide different perspectives.

If I were to give advice to someone interested in being a science advisor, it would be, first, that you’re in this role to serve the country and to serve society. You’re not only serving science, and you’re definitely not serving yourself—this plays into the aforementioned humility. You also must be an effective communicator, because you’re working with a lot of people from very different backgrounds, including policymakers who are already very busy and therefore require clear and concise responses.

Montgomery: While science can be considered a universal language, it also encompasses subjects and jargon that can be difficult to grasp for those who are not trained in the field. As someone who provides scientific advice to people without scientific backgrounds, what advice do you have to give to other scientists on how to communicate their work in a way that is widely understandable?

Nemer: Building off of my last answer, you must understand how to communicate effectively and remove all possible jargon. When I began my career in science, I did not enter the field valuing a multidisciplinary approach. However, I developed an appreciation for it throughout my career as my own field of study shifted and I went from studying chemistry to genetics and then to health. This opened my eyes to the barriers that even scientists put in front of each other, often related to language. When you come from a different field and experience these language barriers, you learn from it and you try not to replicate it. Policymakers and diplomats are aware of the precision science requires, and using jargon is unhelpful. This is not only because it’s difficult to understand, but because it will not encourage engagement.

Prime ministers and cabinet ministers have many things on their plates. So, when you’re talking with them, you have to remove your professor hat; you need to be clear, credible and attentive. Also, humility comes in once again because you cannot pretend to know all the answers. If you are ever unsure, it is fine to say that you are not the right person to talk to, but that you will consult with experts and find an answer. Clarity and humility will contribute to your credibility.

Montgomery: Do you believe that, on both a national and global level, we are seeing a change in the public perspective toward science? If you are seeing a shift, is it positive or negative, and what can scientists and politicians alike do to either encourage this positive perception or rebuild trust?

Nemer: It does appear that there has been a negative shift in public perspective toward science, and it is easy to believe that fewer people trust in science than previously, due to the disinformation that we witnessed surrounding the pandemic. But data shows something else. While those who dissent may be speaking louder, the percentage of people who trust science and scientists has remained largely the same and, in some countries, has even increased.

I personally have witnessed people’s appetite for science grow over the last year. For example, as a biochemist and geneticist, even I find lectures on immunology to be challenging. Yet, recently, many people around me have been discussing immunity and even mRNA. I did my PhD on mRNA and it is thrilling to see the rest of the world appreciate its importance. This has shown me that we should not underestimate the public desire to know more. Instead, we should present them with a menu of options: in this analogy, some will want just the appetizers, others will want the whole meal, and others will want the dessert or the gourmet option.

We must learn a lesson from this pandemic, and remember that, in many countries, the public was actually demanding evidence from their politicians when they were making decisions and setting guidelines. If we want the population’s support for any number of the global challenges that we have talked about, including the climate crisis, we need to give them the evidence.

Additionally, if scientists, politicians and diplomats want to build public trust, they must start by building trust among themselves. It is clear in our constantly evolving world that science and technology are going to play an increasingly important role in politics and diplomacy. More and more, policymakers will have to depend on scientists, and scientists need to empower them to look at evidence, call on experts, and find solutions based on what they have learned. This calls for open science and transparency, and it also calls for scientific literacy and accessibility. This will not happen overnight, but it needs to happen over the long term.

Montgomery: Science and politics are two fields that have historically failed to provide adequate representation of the societies they represent. We have seen a shift toward more inclusivity in both of these fields, but there is still a long way to go. How can we continue to improve both fields to make sure that they are adequately serving all of society?

Nemer: I care deeply about this issue as it is something I have seen firsthand, and it is unfortunate that science and policy share this problem. We can look at the issue of gender diversity as an example. Two decades ago, a historian told me not to worry about the leadership of universities, because in twenty years, it would be mostly women. But that is not the case. We cannot depend on these problems solving themselves. Instead, we must avoid generalizations and look more deeply into the roots of the problem, because they differ from discipline to discipline. For instance, there has been a huge push over the past few years to increase girls’ and women’s interest in engineering. However, we have now found that the issue is not the number of women entering the field; the issue is keeping them in the field. If we look at the field of biological science, women make up the majority of undergraduates and even graduate students. Yet these numbers are not reflected within the demographics of biology professors. The problem is not the women, but the environments they are working in, and the problem clearly lies at different levels in different subjects.

We therefore should closely examine the spaces people are working and studying in, and ask whether we are creating safe and equitable spaces for everyone. The same goes for politics, or any other field, for that matter. If we do not look more deeply into the issues, things are going to look exactly the same twenty years from now. Instead, we have to take a critical approach and measure our progress.

This is where science can help: it can give us data, it can suggest solutions, and it can help us monitor our progress. Also, we must think deeply about what it is that we’re measuring. If we’re just measuring, for example, the percentage of women in STEM, or the percentage of women in elected bodies in the aggregate, it may give us the wrong impression that we’re making a difference. But if we start getting more granular, we start seeing that women and other minorities do not access leadership positions where they can make a difference at the same rate. I decided to look at this issue in particular because it is one that affects fifty percent of the population. However, that does not mean that it is the most important, because there are so many other communities who are underrepresented, and we must do the same for them. If we do not look more critically at these problems, they will never be solved.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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