Ontario appoints first chief scientist to 'make government smarter'

Dr. Molly Shoichet is being asked to "make government smarter and more effective by providing decision-makers with the world's best scientific research and evidence."

Dr. Molly Shoichet's new position is part of the government's plan to create an innovation-based economy

Dr. Molly Shoichet has published more than 575 papers, patents and abstracts, has given over 350 lectures worldwide, and has trained more than 185 scientists in the past 22 years. (University of Toronto)

Ontario has appointed its first ever chief scientist as part of its plan to create an innovation-based economy,

Dr. Molly Shoichet is tasked with "making government smarter and more effective by providing decision-makers with the world's best scientific research and evidence," according to a statement released by the provincial government.

Shoichet is an expert in regenerative medicine and a professor at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on way to promote tissue repair after traumatic spinal cord injury, stroke and blindness.

She spoke with the CBC's David Common on Metro Morning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

David Common: You now have a new role of chief scientist. Why did you apply for it?

Molly Shoichet: Remember that little ditty "Give us a place to stand and a place to grow"? Well, I know it sounds a little bit corny, but really, Ontario has given me that place to stand. It has given me opportunities. When you think about the opportunities for women around the world, there aren't that many. And I have been able to grow as a scientist and contribute that way. But now, this is an opportunity really to paint with a bigger paint brush, give back to Ontario, give back to Canada, in a new way.

DC: What does being a chief scientist of this province actually mean?

MS: Well, it's a good question. I start in January. We are still figuring that out. But I think there's an opportunity to work with colleagues both in government, and across government, and also externally and look at what policies we can work on to make Ontario more competitive and really start with research and connect that to the innovative economy.

Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry, and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. (Roberta Baker/University of Toronto)

DC: We have a provincial minister of Research, Innovation and Science, Reza Moridi, a scientist himself. How will your role differ from what the minister does?

MS: I'm not elected. His job is really focused on research, innovation and science and my job will be to support that role but also to support evidenced-based decision making across government. Of course there is already that but can we do a better job with that?

DC: There is a curiosity there in that there is sometimes a collision between evidence and political desire where politicians sometimes feel compelled to not follow the evidence to do something that is politically popular. How do you convince people to make evidence-based decisions even if they are unpopular?

MS: Well, that's not actually my job. My job is to provide the evidence and then — like any part of life, we all know this — there is evidence and there are emotional decisions. My goal will be to give them the opportunity to make the best decisions so that they have the information and when they make those decisions at least it's based on the science.

DC: There is a something of a model for the role of chief scientist because the federal government has one. Mona Nemir is a heart researcher from Ottawa. What have you learned from her experience as she has navigated her first few months?

MS: So I had the opportunity to talk with Mona before actually taking this role. I do know her well. She, as I, is very excited for the opportunity to work across government. I think we have the opportunity to work together with other chief scientists in other provinces to share and learn from best practices, not just in Canada, but from around the world.

DC: In your new role as chief scientist can you drive our economy more in the direction of research and innovation?

MS: I certainly hope so. That's my desire as well. I am only one person but I think what I have is the opportunity to bring people together and work together to make that happen.

Molly Shoichet delivering a talk at Tedx Toronto in 2015. (Youtube/Tedx Talks)

DC: What are the broader trends that you see in terms of science and innovation when you look at where the jobs of the future might be. You've been very involved with young people — what is the nudge you're trying to give to them?

MS: So my focus is in regenerative medicine and our lab particularly is in that interface of engineering and science, so that's biology, chemistry, engineering, medicine but there is also great opportunities in health, energy, environment. Of course, we see so much going on in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and that's really exciting. I think sometimes people have the fear of the unknown or the fear of the future but that doesn't mean the future isn't coming, so we have to figure out how to make it work for all of us.

DC: It's always good to have new jobs and new challenges but what do you have to give up?

MS: That always a hard one for me, figuring out what to give up. But with every new opportunity, you give something up, but you gain so much more, hopefully. I am able to keep my appointment at the University of Toronto. I have a large lab and really the opportunity to work with brilliant people, so I'm going to continue to do that and maybe give up some other aspects of being a professor, which I love but obviously I can't do all of it.