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The superclusters plan promises more than it can likely deliver

Creso Sá looks at what the recent superclusters announcement really means for universities and academic research.

By CRESO SÁ | FEB 20 2018

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series: Policy & Practice. These monthly posts will be brought to you by Creso Sá, the director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. This series will provide commentary and analysis on higher education policy and practice in Canada, as well as international education.

The announcement of the winners of the federal government’s supercluster initiative competition on February 15 received relatively little attention outside of innovation policy circles and surprised no one inside it.

After a nine-month gestation involving two rounds of applications and reviews, we learned that the program rewarded each region of the country with a supercluster, in themes favoured since the announcement of the initiative, such as artificial intelligence, digital technology, and advanced manufacturing. Through clever framing, traditional industry sectors related to agriculture and aquaculture became “protein” and “ocean” innovation clusters.

What does that mean for universities and academic research?

One of the key goals of the program is to induce collaboration among firms and research institutions. To begin with, universities were by no means minor players in the application process. In many cases they were conveners of conversations among firms that had not collaborated before, but that the universities had linkages with. Moving forward, the vagueness of the information available on each supercluster suggests that much work remains to be done within the winning consortia to figure out how exactly collaboration will happen.

Each supercluster claims to have “more than 100” partners, with the digital technology supercluster in British Columbia stretching to involve more than 270 participants. Some of the institutions listed as participants in the superclusters are in fact networks or associations, which themselves involve dozens of organizations. Making such a diverse collection of entities a functioning collaboration is no small feat, one which superclusters are expected to meet by creating a non-profit organization with a governing body.

Assuming all goes well and a functional structure is in place in fairly short order in each supercluster, the opportunity may exist for university researchers to conduct joint R&D projects with companies, and to commercialize intellectual property. Those faculty and students with entrepreneurial ambitions may be encouraged to form or join start-ups to bring their inventions to the marketplace. Opportunities for consulting and technical assistant projects may also arise. In other words, the $150-$250 million dollars that each supercluster will receive over the next five years may lead companies, through the matching funds requirements, to boost their commitments to working with universities, through the multiple channels these relationships take place.

The general reaction of innovation pundits has been of restrained optimism. There is little disagreement that the rhetoric around the program is awful, that regional politics is obvious in the allocation of winners, and that the projections of economic impacts will be hard to substantiate. But still, many seem to believe that something good will come out of superclusters, whatever it is; after all, it can’t hurt to rally industry around technological innovation.

However, I would counter that this is a poorly conceived initiative that promises too much and specifies too little, and that such carelessness is hard to justify for a billion-dollar program. In his ongoing attempts to make innovation an appealing idea to the broader public, Minister Navdeep Bains trivializes the key concepts underpinning this initiative, including its namesake. Even the most charitable observer knows superclusters will not create made-in-Canada Silicon Valleys, as the minister promised in his announcement speech. This general outlook is apparent in the supercluster initiatives program documentation, which mixes definitions of standard technical terms (e.g. clusters) with imaginary ones and wishful thinking (e.g. “a supercluster is an innovation hotbed” that has “exceptional performance, including an outsize impact on job creation and GDP”). The problem with all of this is not academic nitpicking – proposals will be as tight in their goals, strategies and evaluation frameworks as the program requires them to be. And what we have in display does not look great.

Universities are now in self-congratulatory mode praising their own involvement in superclusters, but the federal budget will be released soon, which may bring a shift in mood. If the government does not acquiesce to the funding recommendations in the Naylor Report, the science policy debate being waged across the country for the past couple of years will certainly be reignited. Compromises in the science budget with anything less than a real increase in funding for the federal research councils will disappoint the #SupportTheReport crowd for a second year in a row and calls for greater mobilization among academic leaders around fundamental research will continue.

The Liberals, on the other hand, will certainly fold research funding into a larger conversation about the government’s commitments to “science and innovation,” with the superclusters being the marquee initiative of the year. If Minister Bains toured the country for months boasting about shortlisted proposals, think about the mileage funded superclusters will provide this year in political credit claiming. And hopefully at some point in the near future we will get some evidence that the superclusters have their act together in delivering the innovation goods.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto.
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