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Ottawa researcher Mona Nemer named Canada’s new science advisor

Dr. Mona Nemer is introduced as Canada’s new science advisor on Parliament Hill on Sept. 26, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mona Nemer, a specialist in the genetics of heart disease and a long-time vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada's new chief science advisor.

The three-year appointment, announced Tuesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes two years after the federal Liberals pledged to reinstate the position during the last election campaign and nearly a decade after the previous version of the role was cut by then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Dr. Nemer steps into the job of advising the federal government on science-related policy at a crucial time. After a landmark review of Canada's academic research landscape, university-based scientists are lobbying hard for Ottawa to significantly boost science funding, one of the report's key recommendations. At the same time, scientists and science-advocacy groups are increasingly scrutinizing federal actions on a range of sensitive environment and health-related issues to ensure the Trudeau government is making good on promises to embrace evidence-based decision-making.

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A key test of the position's relevance for many observers will be the extent to which Dr. Nemer is able to speak her mind on matters where science may run afoul of political expediency.

"I intend to conduct my work in an objective, impartial and open manner to provide the best possible advice," Dr. Nemer told The Globe and Mail. "I understand the credibility of the position and the benefit that it can provide to Canadians depends on how independent I am going to be."

Justin Trudeau names new chief science advisor (The Canadian Press)

An Order of Canada recipient with a string of academic honours and a long list of scientific papers to her name, Dr. Nemer's research interests focus on heart formation and function. Her achievements in the lab include the identification of several genes important for heart development and she has trained more than 100 graduate students, from Canada and abroad.

Born in 1957, Dr. Nemer grew up in Lebanon and pursued an early passion for chemistry at a time and place where women were typically discouraged from entering scientific fields. When Lebanon's civil war made it increasingly difficult for her to pursue her studies, her family was able to arrange for her to move to the United States, where she completed an undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.

A key turning point came in the summer of 1977, when Dr. Nemer took a trip with friends to see Montreal. She quickly fell for the city and in short order secured acceptance as a graduate student at McGill University where she earned her PhD in 1982. She was a professor at the University of Montreal before joining the faculty of the University of Ottawa where she is director of the molecular genetics and cardiac regeneration laboratory.

Outside of her specialty, Dr. Nemer is best known for being the University of Ottawa's vice-president of research for 11 years before stepping down this past summer. The role put her in a position to champion research in departments across the campus. She also joined a chorus of administrators from research-intensive universities who have long pushed the federal government to lift Canada's stagnating support for science.

"She's a scientist's scientist," said Jeremy Kerr, a professor of macroecology who worked with Dr. Nemer on two committees. He praised her efforts on behalf of research excellence at the university as well her track record on gender equity in research, also a stated priority for Canada's Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, to whom Dr. Nemer will now report.

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"I see this as a profoundly important position for the country and so does our government," Ms. Duncan said of Dr. Nemer's appointment.

Dr. Nemer's time as a university executive has not been entirely free of controversy, however. Salary increases she and another administrator received in 2014 are the subject of a continuing court challenge launched by the union that represents the university's faculty.

The framing of Dr. Nemer's new role within the federal government has changed since the Liberals made it part of their election platform. At that time, it was called "chief science officer," a term that implied a watchdog role over federal science integrity. When the position was advertised at the start of this year, the description more firmly identified it as advisory in nature. But how effective it will be now depends both on Dr. Nemer and the government's willingness to heed her advice.

It remains an open question how Dr. Nemer might influence the government's response to various recommendations by the science review, headed up by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, including a call to increase federal spending on academic research from $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion a year.

Asked which of the report's recommendations she supports, Dr. Nemer said she would not reveal her advice to Ms. Duncan, "before I give it," but added, "If you're asking me whether I support increased investment in science and research, the short answer is yes."

Matt Jeneroux, an Edmonton MP recently selected as the federal Conservative Party's science critic, said that his party did not oppose the appointment but added that he would be pressing the government to ensure Dr. Nemer's role is non-partisan "and not used as a political asset."

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