In the name of science

Annick Poitras

Special Collaboration

13 June 2020

Au nom de la science

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault
The evidence of science are included in the decision-making process, but in the end, it is the government who decides, underlines Rémi Quirion.

This text is part of the special issue to climate Action

Rémi Quirion is one of the neuroscientists the most cited in the world. This doctor of pharmacology is also the first chief Scientist of Quebec since the creation of the position, in 2011. In addition to chairing the Fonds de recherche du Québec of a value of $ 237 million (in 2018-2019), he advises his ” boss “, the minister of Economy and Innovation, Pierre Fitzgibbon, in order that the evidence and best practices to be taken into account in the decisions of the State. It’s thedrunk here, his reflections on the lessons to be learned from the pandemic in order to cope with the climate threat.


Your role is to advise the government in the middle of lighting science. From your point of view, the politicians of quebec listen to the scientists ?

Since I’m in position, I have acted under four governments of three different colours : the liberal Party, the Parti québécois and the Coalition avenir Québec. Of course, listening can change from one government to another. It always depends on the ministers and the prime minister in office, some being more open than others. That said, the research and science are seen positively by our leaders since several decades. In fact, no one has ever said ” we close the research Fund ! “Even if we can always do better, the situation is more positive in Quebec and in Canada than in other regions of the world. The american researchers, for example, are less listened to under the current presidency than they were under Obama.

In the context of the pandemic, I had a lot of discussions with the prime minister and policy makers of public health, education, the environment, etc, I give advice and recommendations to multiple-choice and, at the end ducompte, it is the elected government that decides, considering also aspects of social, political, etc. – But, at least, the evidence of science are included in the decision-making process.

Have you been surprised to listen to the government to scientists since the beginning of this health crisis ?

Yes, globally, it has been positive. There has been listening to my side, but also very much on the side of public health. The prime minister is often said that it is the Dr Arruda who decides ! It is though science has been placed on the public square, but it should always be a bit careful with this as it is not abused… finally, at a given time, the politicians say : “Ah… it is the researchers that we had been told to do such and such thing ! “In Quebec, it has not had a similar problem, but in England, the chief Scientist has done pick up several times by the researchers, who blamed her for not being sufficiently independent of government policy, and this has created a lot of tension.

What lessons can we already draw from the crisis of the novel coronavirus and its management for adaptation to climate change ?

This is a good question, we think a lot of that currently. The first idea that comes to me is :when we want to, we can. Although we talk about climate change for a long time, we advance slowly, everything takes time, perhaps because it affects everyone and so individual at the same time. It is quite abstract. The pandemic has shown, however, that we could accomplish so much in very little time. When there is a will of our leaders and our fellow citizens, we can make progress very quickly. The issue according to me is to make the consequences of climate change more concrete for the public and for policy makers.

The intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) says that we still have a dozen years to slow global warming. After that, it will be too late. How do people respond to the climate emergency as they have done to protect themselves from the COVID-19 ?

I don’t have the magic solution, but we can learn from what has succeeded, during this pandemic in order to act in the field of sustainable development, circular economy and clean energy. I think a good part of the population wants it. Now it is time to see how the researchers can work with policy makers and with citizens, in particular young people, who are very sensitized to the protection of the environment. I miserai also on the cities and the municipalities, who work closely with the population. Climate change, that wants to say what, in my alley, in my neighborhood ? I think that researchers would be willing to engage in projects of community-based research, among others, to answer these questions.

I am hopeful that climate change will resume soon the first page. This is no longer the operating time to say ” we are going to wait for another five years, another government will do it “. It must be done now and, in a context of exit from the crisis, the sustainable development would be a way to bring the economy back to a more acceptable level in Quebec, in Canada and around the world.

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