Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

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."

Kirsty Duncan, Justin Trudeau, Mona Nemer, chief scientist
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan speaks at a news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the new chief scientist Mona Nemer and Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald. Photo by Carl Meyer

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."

Julia Baum, Ottawa, scientist
Biologist Julia Baum speaks to National Observer at a conference in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2016. File photo by Mike De Souza

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.

Evidence for Democracy executive director Katie Gibbs, featured in this April 22, 2017 photo in Ottawa, said she was thrilled about the government's decision to name Mona Nemer as its chief scientist. Photo courtesy of Evidence for Democracy

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.

More than a year later, the government launched its search for the right candidate on Dec. 5, 2016. The open competition then ran for a few months, closing on Feb. 13, 2017.

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

Keep reading

I would really like to know what was the scientific argument that led to the approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipeline? For me, the approval of these two pipelines were political decisions, proving that the present administration put money and profits for fossil fuel companies ( we are still waiting for the federal government promise to abolish fossil fuel subsidies) ahead of environmental priorities like climate change, and air and water pollution.
I hope that federal government scientists ( especially scientists at NRC's Canadian Forest Service) will speak about last year decision by the Trudeau administration to deny the impacts of climate change on "natural disturbances" (e.g. wildfires, insect infestations such as the mountain pine beetle, drought, the melting of permafrost).
Canada's Second Biennial Report submission to the UNFCCC, April 2016, section 5.1 footnote:" Canada has indicated that its accounting for managed forests towards its emissions reductions target will exclude the impacts of natural disturbances because these impacts are non-anthropogenic."
Many studies at the federal and provincial level have demonstrated the actual impact, and future impacts, of climate change on Canadian forests, and particularly the critical role played by natural disturbances: "In general, however, the present review of the available information indicates that many of the anticipated changes in climate will be substantially negative for Canada's boreal ecosystems during the next 50-100 years. The most immediate threats may be the rapid expansion of populations of endemic insect pest species...Forest fires will likely increase gradually in terms of occurrence, area burned, and severity over the next decades.
A major concern must be that some 40% of the present-day boreal forest area overlays permafrost. The ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to permafrost degradation, which is already widespread and expected to expand rapidly in response to warming trends that have already begun, and which will continue regardless of any immediate global efforts to mitigate GHG emissions. The process of degradation will occur on a vast scale, causing the release of even more GHGs, for a period lasting well into the 22nd century."
(source: NRC Research Press, October 09, 21013: "Anticipating the Consequences of Climate Change for Canada's Boreal Forest Ecosystems")
The impacts of climate change on Canadian peatlands are a major concern for scientists as peatlands of the Boreal and Subarctic regions contain approximately 147 Gt (billion tonnes) of soil organic carbon. A peatland sensitivity model predicts that approximately 60% of the area and 56% of this organic soil carbon will be severely to extremely severely affected by climate change releasing large amounts of carbon in the forms of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. In addition, peat fires release mercury into the atmosphere at a rate 15 times greater than upland forests, which may be a serious human health concern.
(source: Canadian Water Resources Journal, Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, May 2009: "The Impact of Climate Change on Canadian Peatlands")
(Natural Resources Canada, 2013-12-04: "Peatland Fires and Carbon Emissions")

During the October, 2015 election, Justin Trudeau promised government on an “open by default” basis. Initially that was to include access to Cabinet documents. It didn’t take the Liberal government long to back off the idea opening cabinet documents despite the fact that to make intelligent voting decisions, citizens need to know the basis on which a government has chosen its policies and actions..

As pointed out in the article ‘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” ’. However, as also pointed out in the article, by the time the positions advertised, the title had been changed to a “chief science advisor”.

Also as noted in article, the document related to the search for the chief science advisor states specifically that the position is intended to advise “the Prime Minister, the Minister of science and members of the cabinet”.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has claimed that “the difference is merely semantics” and was based on consultations and best practices. The so-called “best practices” tend to be undefined here and in virtually every case the term is used. However, based on the Liberal government’s approach to the active disclosure of decision-making rationale, it is more likely that the reason is to emphasize the advisory role of the new science position and, by doing so, capturing the advice by the science advisor within the web of cabinet secrecy. To call the position a science officer could enable people to think that the individual was an officer of Parliament that would provide annual activity reports to the House of Commons. However, the government has made it clear that it does not intend to publicize the activities of the “chief science advisor”.

For example, as the article points out ‘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” ‘. This fact indicates that any report by the science advisor will not be able to shed any light on government decision-making.

Finally as pointed out in the article, “ 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.” Whether the science actually is made public would again be a cabinet decision. If, as is often the case, the decision is not to disclose, the public will not even know what the scientists have been working on.

While the government promised during the election campaign to employ evidence-based decision-making, it is ensuring that the role of the chief science advisor can be used to prevent disclosing the nature of the so-called evidence the government used to make decisions.