BEIRUT: Dr. Mona Nemer, a Lebanese-Canadian researcher specializing in the genetics of heart disease, is ready to “roll up her sleeves and get to work” as Canada’s first chief science adviser. “I’m excited about my new position and of course honored to have been offered this very important job with the government,” Nemer told The Daily Star by telephone from Canada. “There’s lots to do and I’m ready for it.”
Less than two weeks into her appointment, Nemer is indeed ready and also exceptionally busy. Fitting in 10 minutes to speak with The Daily Star, she apologized for the limited time available between her national responsibilities.
Nemer, whose appointment was officially announced by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau two weeks ago, is the first person to be appointed to the post.
A different role, that of national science adviser, was created in Canada in 2004, but the position was abandoned four years later under the then-conservative government of Stephen Harper.
Arthur Carty served as the national science adviser for those four brief years, and announced his disappointment in the government following the role’s abolishment.
“The [previous] post was something sort of similar, but this is a new position,” Nemer said.
“What the officer here would be doing is providing advice to the government on science-related issues. They will ensure that the government makes decisions based on impartial evidence, objective data,” she said. “So my job is to gather this data in any way and translate it for decision-makers.”
The work’s breadth will require extensive collaboration with the scientific community in Canada and abroad, Nemer noted.
“Clearly, I will not be the only one doing this. I will be calling upon experts both nationally and internationally,” she said. “This is why I see myself more as a convener and integrator of advice.”
Objectivity and independence are critical to serving faithfully in the position, Nemer said. Although it is a government position, she underlined that the role itself is not political. There were no elections or campaigns leading up to her appointment; rather, a series of interviews and background checks were carried out by a selection committee.
Many researchers and scientists have worked with the Canadian government, advising it on a variety of issues, but Nemer said she had never taken part in these collaborations.
Prior to her appointment, Nemer had since 2006 served as the vice president of research at the University of Ottawa, where she also taught biochemistry and conducted research at the faculty of medicine.
Nemer is a recipient of the Order of Canada, the second-highest national honor recognizing outstanding merit, and a highly awarded researcher for her contributions in identifying the genes related to heart development.
While she has spent much of her life in Canada, where she obtained her doctorate at Montreal’s McGill University, Nemer remains firmly rooted in Lebanon.
“I was born in Beirut and went to Zahrat El-Ihsan and Notre Dame de Nazareth in Ashrafieh for high school,” Nemer told The Daily Star.
Like many Lebanese, Nemer uprooted herself to escape violence and instability. “I was supposed to finish my studies at the American University of Beirut, but I left at the beginning of the war in 1976, when violence was beginning to escalate.”
Her move took her first to the United States. There, she finished her undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Although she remained unable to return to her home country during the volatile years of the Civil War, Nemer maintained close ties to Lebanon. Now, she often visits extended family in the country, and collaborates with Lebanese scientists in her field.
“I have always maintained connections with the country,” Nemer said. “In my various jobs, I’ve promoted collaborations with [Lebanese and Canadian] students, encouraging them to travel back and forth. Also, I personally work with researchers at AUB who work on the genetics of heart diseases.”
The newly appointed chief expressed her esteem for the Canadian government regarding their decision to create the new scientific advisory role.
“I think it’s fantastic that the government and Prime Minister [Justin Trudeau] have stepped up to reinstate the position. It shows their respect for the sciences. It’s important because it underlies so many things relating to our health, to our environment,” she said.
As for Lebanon, Nemer urged the government of her home country to prioritize science. “There are fantastic scientists in Lebanon and I’m sure if called upon, they would gladly help the government achieve its objective of making things better for everyone,” she said, before rushing off to her next engagement.