By Matthew Johnson
You may have heard that the federal government recently embarked on a multi-city roadtrip to announce the shortlisted proposals to the Innovation Supercluster program. Invited proposals include those focused on ocean technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, agri-food and biomaterials, infrastructure, and digital technologies. Regions, companies, and universities from across the country are represented among the finalists, who will now vie for a share of the $950 million available to “spur innovation” in these strategic sectors.
Notable in its absence is a proposal which is explicitly focused on biomedical and healthcare innovation. Some have opined that exclusion of the life sciences in the Supercluster program is out of step with its consistent citing as a “priority sector”, provincial and municipal-level health innovation initiatives across the country, as well as growing private sector activity. The day of the announcement of the shortlist, I tweeted that I found it “interesting” that there were no biomedical proposals advanced to the next stage.
“Interesting”, only because biomedical disciplines are typically very well represented in innovation stimulus programs. Frankly, it’s easy to argue they’ve been overrepresented – using the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program as a proxy, 27 out of a total of 42 funded centres have been focused on health and life sciences (29 if you include the 2 cross-sectoral centres with substantial biomedical activity), accounting for ~$540 million in public spending since 2004. The government continues to support many of these centres to this day. Does our sector really need additional publically-subsidized bureaucracy? There’s no question that $950 million is a big number, but we’re too good, and we receive more than our share of public support, to feel slighted by this. Besides, as this blog endeavours to promote, our talents in biomedical research and discovery are well distributed across the country, and thus not well aligned with a program that seeks to concentrate sector activity based on geography.
So let’s all feel OK with sitting this one out. For what it’s worth, I think the whole $950 million would be much better spent on early-childhood care and education. This would do more for our nation’s health and economy than any Supercluster ever could.