POLITICS

Trudeau Names Mona Nemer Canada's Science Advisor

Nemer will advise cabinet ministers on scientific issues.

09/26/2017 20:38 EDT | Updated 09/26/2017 20:38 EDT
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Dr. Mona Nemer is introduced as Canada's new chief science advisor on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

OTTAWA — First he named her the country's top scientist.

Then Justin Trudeau tried to take Mona Nemer out with a robot.

It was all in a day's work for the prime minister, a self-confessed "nerd" who on Tuesday proclaimed Nemer, formerly the vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, as Canada's new chief science adviser.

After making the official announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons, Trudeau and Nemer walked across the street to the prime minister's office building, which happened to be playing host to the prime minister's science fair.

More than two dozen students from across the country were presenting projects on everything from cancer research to brain surgery. Two plucky youngsters from Quebec even schooled the media-savvy Trudeau on the science of good publicity.

But the real fun was on the second floor, where the PM got to test-drive the 54-kilogram, metre-tall robot — it delivers gears, shoots balls and has a top speed of 15 km/h — from First Robotics team members Evan Bernat and Kate O'Melia of St. Catharines, Ont.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer talk to a participant at a science fair event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

First, Trudeau tried to convince the teenagers to direct the robot fire balls at members of the media pool. "I'm not allowed to hit them," he quipped.

Then Trudeau took the controls and drove it around a little, firing off a few balls, before promptly hitting the wrong button and steering the robot right into Nemer, who was standing nearby.

"Oh, sorry," he said as everyone laughed. "I'm going to kill the science adviser on her first day."

Nemer's appointment fulfills an election promise and ticks off one of Science Minister Kirsty Duncan's mandated deliverables. Trudeau said her advice will be to cabinet as needed on "scientific issues of national importance."

"She will provide advice to ensure that we have the evidence we need to make good decisions for all Canadians," he said.

I'm taking this job to make a difference, and I intend to do so.Mona Nemer

Nemer said it is in every Canadian's interest to become more scientifically literate: "I'm taking this job to make a difference, and I intend to do so."

Nemer will head up a $2-million budget and one of her mandates is to keep government science accessible and public, and ensure federal scientists are not muzzled from speaking about their research, even if it disagrees with government policy.

There are two staffers in the office already to help with transition, but Duncan's office says the size of the staff will ultimately be decided by Nemer herself.

Canada had a national science adviser from 2004 to 2008, but the former Conservative government eliminated the position.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Dr. Mona Nemer is introduced as Canada's new Chief Science Advisor on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Amid funding cuts and complaints that scientists were prevented from speaking about their research, the Conservatives had a fractured relationship with scientists, a relationship Trudeau promised to improve.

Scientist Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, which advocates for the use of transparent evidence-based decision making in government, said the position will help clarify and improve the role science plays in government policy.

Gibbs, who helped lead scientists in a major protest against the Tories, says federal scientists now say they feel free to speak publicly about their research and its conclusions.

In practice, however, there is still some confusion, she said, including about when a scientist ought to speak about their research, and to whom. Gibbs said the science adviser can help clarify the policy across the board for scientists and their superiors.

A national scientific adviser is a critical position to ensure science is on the agenda every time the government considers a policy, said Mehrdad Hariri, CEO of the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

"Is there any challenge in this country that is not science related?"

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