Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style
Mona Nemer tells Julie Gould about her role as Canada's chief scientific adviser and how she aims to strengthen science in the country.
"We're bordered by three oceans," says Mona Nemer of Canada, where she has been chief scientific adviser since September 2017. "On one side we are close to Europe, on the other we are close to Asia. It's a great country to study the Arctic, climate research, oceanography, but also astrophysics, information technology and health."
Nemer describes her role as "convener of the dialogue between the broader science community and government," providing scientific advice to current prime minister Justin Trudeau and his ministerial team, and making recommendations on how to improve Canadian science.
As a civil servant rather than an elected politician, how does she manage scientists' expectations, many of whom felt short-changed in this year's budget, compared to 2018?
“It wasn't as generous as last year's budget, but there was still quite a bit of investment." says Nemer. "It's really important that the government pays continuous attention to science and innovation. I prefer it this way, rather than CAN$10bn last year, and then zero this year.
"Those approaches are actually very disruptive to the research enterprise. It's much better to have sustained investment, and last year's budget was multi-year, so it committed increases not only for last year but the following four years. So there are increases that are still carrying over.”
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Analysis of Nature’s 2019 PhD survey for students in Canada
A new analysis of results from Nature’s 2019 survey of PhD students has shed new light on Canada, a country that remains a popular destination for students from around the world. The self-selected survey drew responses from 182 students in Canada, out of a total of more than 6,300 responses. Seventy-seven percent of Canadians reported being satisfied with their overall Phd experience, a marked improvement over the 70% rate of satisfaction in the rest of the world. In China, for another comparison, only 55% of students said they were are least somewhat satisfied with their PhD experience. Some students used the survey’s comment section to share their optimism and positivity. When asked to describe the state of academia in Canada, one student replied that it is “evolving into the open, collaborative environment that it should be.” Another said “I greatly enjoy the academic system and find it extremely intellectually stimulating and exciting.” But survey results and free-text comments also point to areas of unease, including worries about job prospects. When asked to name one of the biggest challenges for students in their country, 70% of Canadians chose “finding research careers in academia.” In the rest of the world, 58% of respondents shared that concern. Overall, slightly less than half of all Canadians said that academia would be their first choice for a career, compared to 56% for students elsewhere. Many Canadian students feel under-equipped and underprepared to explore the full range of job options. Forty-six percent reported being dissatisfied with career training and advice, putting them about on par with the rest of the world. One Canadian student opined that there was “not enough advice, training, networking or collaborations for [the] non-academic track.” Students often count on their supervisors for career advice. But the Nature survey found that the student/mentor relationship can be tricky for students everywhere. Overall, 69% of respondents in Canada said they were satisfied with their relationship with their supervisor, and 23% said they were dissatisfied. One respondent said that “supervisors have too much power with no consequences for abusing that power.” In one sign of uneven relationships with mentors, some students felt under-appreciated for their work. “For some reason,” one wrote, “PhD students are not seen as proper employees or as individuals of value, despite our work being essential for the research institutes that employ us.” For some, the mentor/mentee partnership took much more serious turn. Twenty-nine percent of all respondents said they had experienced bullying during their PhD training. In the rest of the world, it was 21%. When asked to specify the perpetrator, 62% of Canadians and 48% of respondents elsewhere named their supervisor. Along similar lines, 26% of Canadians and 20% of respondents from outside Canada reported being the victim of discrimination. Nearly half (46%) of Canadians who reported discrimination said it was based on gender. In the rest of the world, gender-based discrimination accounted for 38% of all cases. PhD students in Canada clearly have much to say about the opportunities, challenges and room for improvement in the country’s academic system. They just needed to be asked.