Science cannot be seen as a shovel-ready project

Science cannot be seen as a shovel-ready project

The Parliamentary Budget Office isn’t impressed with work done so far by the various research superclusters launched by the federal government in February 2018.

Applied science is likely harder to measure than the budget office thought it would be. Science isn’t a shovel-ready project.

The five superclusters, created to enhance Canadian capacity for developing technology enterprises, were formed with the expectation that they would create an additional $50 billion in gross domestic product and 50,000 jobs over the coming decade.

In most cases the funds would leverage work already underway in Canadian science and technology and marry it with business investments.

The government investment is supposed to be just over $900 million to be spent over the clusters’ five-year life spans. Private investors and other levels of government are supposed to match the federal government’s contributions.

In a report earlier this month, the budget office said only $30 million has been spent so far, most of that on administration. Canada’s Innovation, Science and Development department oversees the project and measures economic impact. The PBO report criticized the lack of quantifiable objectives available from that department.

The Prairies’ supercluster is based on protein development. More options for plant protein are timely considering the shift to meatless meat imitators and the ongoing push by nutritionists and environmentalists the world over to increase the role of plant protein in the global diet.

The superclusters were given four goals: foster partnerships and collaboration; accelerate innovation; develop innovation ecosystems; and promote global ambition.

The PBO examined the process in March and filed a report earlier this month. However, when it comes to agricultural research, a year and bit is just a start, especially if commercially viable outcomes are imagined.

The government agency’s report suggested insufficient spending had occurred as of March, about 10 percent of what was projected. With only a few research projects announced, the protein supercluster and its siblings were deemed by the PBO to be unlikely to meet their goals.

But a lot has happened in the past seven months that the PBO should have taken into account before releasing its negative critique.

In that time, the protein project assigned more projects and funding. That information would have been available to the budget office but it didn’t ask.

A major goal of supercluster projects is to create trusted relationships between the business and research communities and between competing interests that are working toward common goals. Those meetings take time and require small steps to develop.

As well, good research is expensive. The superclusters are there to create opportunities for the future even beyond their five-year mandates. The PBO has projected GDP growth that is half of the $50 billion goal, but it failed to consider that science, especially in agriculture and food, isn’t easy or cheap. It is competitive, it takes time and the best minds are at work on it.

The budget office must monitor the work of superclusters. That is undisputed. But the recent report didn’t sufficiently consider the latest information.

Rather than use the report to lower expectations arising from superclusters, it should be used to encourage them to meet their full potential.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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