Recent grumblings about the Trudeau government's commitment to evidence-based decisions turned into cheers on Tuesday after the long-awaited introduction of Canada's new chief scientist.
A distinguished medical researcher, Mona Nemer, has been chosen to take on the new role, delivering on a long-standing election commitment after two years of delays.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan introduced Nemer at a news conference in Ottawa, describing the move as a "big step forward." It follows some recent criticism and concerns over funding shortfalls in important areas such as climate change science and environmental monitoring.
Nemer said she was "happy and proud" to be taking over the new role.
"What a great day for science," Nemer said in French, in her first words at the podium.
"I'm passionate about science and passionate about Canada, so you can understand that this is a challenge that I'm very excited to take on."
Trudeau had promised to restore evidence-based decision making in government after a decade in which opposition parties had accused the previous Harper government of muzzling scientists and making key decisions based on politics, instead of the facts.
“We have taken great strides to fulfill our promise to restore science as a pillar of government decision-making," Trudeau said. "Dr. Nemer brings a wealth of expertise to the role. Her advice will be invaluable and inform decisions made at the highest levels. I look forward to working with her to promote a culture of scientific excellence in Canada.”
Some scientists have cast doubts about whether the Trudeau government considered scientific evidence and advice in recent federal decisions to approve major energy projects such as Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Duncan noted that respecting science was a core value for the government.
"I look forward to working with Dr. Nemer, Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, who will provide us with the evidence we need to make decisions about what matters most to Canadians: their health and safety, their families and communities, their jobs, environment and future prosperity," Duncan said.
Nemer added that she considers science and evidence-based policies to be "vital to growing a healthy and progressive society."
"Science helps advance key societal priorities, from public health [to] environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and of course, national security," she said.
"We scientists have an important role to play — inside, and outside our labs — like engaging in knowledge exchange, and in translating and explaining science to the public, including to our youth. We must increase our participation in public debates, particularly in matters requiring scientific understanding and perspective, and there are many of them. It is in the interests of everyone that we all become more scientifically literate."
Scientists 'thrilled' about step forward
One of four authors of a recent report about how to rejuvenate fundamental research in Canada was pleased to hear that the government was moving forward.
“This news should be welcomed by all Canadians because it means that policies we care about as a country will now be better informed by scientific evidence," said Julia Baum, an associate professor at the University of Victoria.
"Science will now have a more prominent role at the decision-making table, and that will benefit all Canadians because it means we will be making evidence-based, informed decisions about the issues we all care about."
Nemer has got the science credibility needed to be an effective chief science advisor, said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a group that advocates for evidence-based decision making in government.
Gibbs, who was present at the announcement on Parliament Hill, pointed out that Nemer was vice president of research at the University of Ottawa.
With her experience from her previous role, Nemer would have a full understanding of funding problems faced by researchers, Gibbs explained.
"I'm thrilled with the choice," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence For Democracy, a group that advocates for evidence-based decision-making in government. "Hopefully she gets the needs of the science community and will be a good representative for the science community."
While the mandate of the chief science advisor focuses more on evidence-based decision making or open communication of science, rather than funding, Gibbs argued Nemer's short speech upon her appointment to the position reflected a desire to make Canadian science the best in the world.
"I don't see how we can do that without more funding," said Gibbs. "So I think it was actually a really positive indication that her office is going to be taking on some of the issues around funding for research," as well as the recommendations of a report by a federal panel that looked at fundamental science funding, commonly referred to as the Naylor report after its chair, Dr. C. David Naylor.
Long-awaited position has been teased for years
Thomas Duck, an associate professor in Dalhousie University's physics and atmospheric science department, has been critical in recent months of the government's handling of public scientific research. But he joined in praise for the government's new appointment.
"I have to say, her CV is impressive and her credentials are impeccable, so this is very encouraging," said Duck in a phone interview.
Like Gibbs, Duck also pointed out Nemer's background as a wrangler for funding. "She'll be very familiar with the problems plaguing the science community, as articulated by the Naylor report," he said.
"At the same time, she's also a practicing scientist, and she has got incredible personal experience running her own research activity, and continued to do so while being a [vice president], which I think is pretty unusual and very impressive."
He said it was important that Nemer had the budget ready to establish a team and get it off the ground quickly.
During the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau promised to create a chief science officer to ensure that the public could access government science, that scientists could speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses play a role in government decision-making.
That promise re-appeared in the marching orders that Trudeau gave Duncan after forming government, as the first point in a bullet-point list of top priorities.
And then ...nothing.
Groups waited patiently for an announcement for weeks.
The position popped up in the March budget. The government said it would spend about $2 million per year for the position, and that person's office.
Yet the following month, Duncan made no mention of a chief science officer, or advisor, during her brief appearance in front of the press on April 10, when responding to the release of the Naylor report. Her press release also didn’t mention the position.
That’s despite the fact that the report itself deeply incorporated the position into its analysis of the federal science funding landscape. The panel, for example, envisioned a chief science official working alongside a new independent science advisory council. For what it's worth, it also referred to the appointment as “imminent.”
Yet the timeline remained murky as the weeks went by. “We hope to announce the appointment of the chief science adviser before the summer recess,” Duncan told the House of Commons industry committee on May 16.
By the summer, scientists were starting to wonder just how much progress Duncan had made in her attempt to revitalize Canadian science after the Harper era.
When National Observer asked her how she planned to respond to the panel’s recommendations, Duncan focused on Trudeau government accomplishments, including “launching the search for the chief science advisor.”
Soon after forming a government, the Liberals also introduced changes in federal policy and guidelines that appear to have changed the culture in some departments that previously restricted scientists from speaking freely about their work. In most cases, scientists can directly answer questions from reporters, although there are still cases when requests for comment get filtered through a spokesperson or press secretary.
The government reached several deals with bargaining units of the main public service union that represents scientists, enshrining the right of scientists to speak freely about their work into their collective agreements.
By 2017, the Naylor report had recommended winding down the government’s science advice body, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, and replacing it with a new, independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with the chief science advisor.
The council, which provides confidential advice to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, became the focal point of science advice during the Harper government after former prime minister Stephen Harper eliminated the position of national science advisor, which had been created under former prime minister Paul Martin.
The council approach had more in common with the period before Martin, when many departments had their own chief science advisor or officer, without a top-level person pulling all the threads together, according to the review panel. Although, there was a brief period in the late 1960s when a chief science adviser was appointed to Cabinet.
The difference between “officer” and “advisor”
Trudeau's 2015 election promise was for a “chief science officer” that would “ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.”
This exact sentence is replicated in the mandate letter that Trudeau gave Duncan after forming government. That means when Duncan began her work, she was looking for an “officer.”
By the time she launched the search for the position in December 2016, however, the position’s title had become “chief science advisor.” That is also how the government’s appointment page, the official document through which the position would actually be staffed, ended up referring to the title.
Duncan has argued that the difference is merely semantics, based on her consultations and taking best practices into account. For instance, it’s the term used mostly in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, she told National Observer. A chief science officer might come across as more of a private-sector, c-suite term.
Looking at tweaks to the government’s description of the position’s mandate also offers some clues.
Instead of ensuring that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions, for example, the new mandate had the individual ensuring science was “effectively communicated across government.”
In addition, instead of an officer ensuring government science is fully available to the public, this individual was expected to “advise” on “how to ensure” that it was. The scientists being allowed to speak freely were qualified as “federal” scientists.
Finally, there was an additional line added to the beginning that emphasized the advisory nature: “responsible for providing scientific advice to the prime minister, the minister of science and members of Cabinet.”
A further clue comes from the province of Ontario’s search for its own “chief science officer.” Based on feedback it received, the province said, it dropped “officer” from its title, going with "chief scientist" instead, to “better reflect the advisory nature” of the position, as well as key functions.
It’s worth noting that Quebec also has a "chief scientist" — no officer or advisor in the title — while the British prime minister has a “chief scientific adviser,” currently Chris Whitty, who is there on an interim basis.
The White House, meanwhile, is supposed to have a director of its Office of Science and Technology Policy, colloquially known as the president’s “science advisor.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has not nominated anyone to that position, and the office remains significantly understaffed compared to the Obama administration, according to a Sept. 15 Wired story.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday with additional background information and quotes