The “Ocean Supercluster”: A Super-Subsidy to Corporations
LOOK! IT’S A BIRD….IT’S A PLANE….NO, IT’S JUSTIN SUPER-SUBSIDY!
“As the years went by and the child grew to maturity, he found himself possessed of amazing political powers. As charming as a week-old puppy; more entitled than a first-born heir…. able to captivate crowds with a smoozy smirk and seductive stare….the infant born with a silver spoon in his mouth had grown to become the ‘Man of Steal’ – JUSTIN SUPER-SUBSIDY!”
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How much do you know about the “Ocean Supercluster”? Not much I suspect. And why would you? When I first heard about it I did what I’m sure nearly every other Islander who heard the good-news announcement did – I thought, “Finally, Atlantic Canadians won something!” Then I did some digging and realized I had been completely hood-winked and was cheering for the wrong team.
If the headlines had read “Justin Trudeau gives nearly a Billion dollars of free money to some of the world’s largest corporations,” I’m sure we and the media would have all sat up and taken notice. And we likely would have asked a few tough questions. But the terms “subsidy” or “grant” or “free money” were unfortunately never used in the announcements….it was a brilliantly-executed political and corporate public relations campaign.
What we were subjected to was a masterful sleight-of-hand and a carefully-choreographed show which capitalized on the dynamics of group conformity and successfully evoked a collective “congratulations!” with news that we – little ole Atlantic Canada – had just won first prize in a lucrative national competition bringing major investment dollars! Was this news too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes.
I’ll get into the details in a minute, but first, a bit more about the Federal Liberal government’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative (ISI).
The Federal Liberal’s Supercluster Competition: A Backgrounder
The $950 million supercluster initiative was first announced in the Canadian government’s budget in March 2017, presented as an innovative economic strategy with a particular interest in digital, cleantech, agrifood, advanced manufacturing, biosciences, and clean resources industries. It was presented as a “silicon valley” model with a promise that it would put Canada on the world map as a leader in a number of key areas of the “knowledge-based” economy by encouraging new, innovative technologies.
Unlike previous federal business programs – where anyone with good entrepreneurial ideas and the means to prepare and submit an application had a equal chance at securing some federal dollars to launch or expand a new business – this mega-money give-away was never intended for ordinary Canadians, it was specifically designed with large corporations in mind. “Small” might be beautiful; but “big” – real big – was getting the money this time around! The criteria outlined in the Application Program Guide stipulated proposals must involve:
At least ten (10) private sector enterprises, including a minimum of two (2) large firms (500 employees or more), one (1) medium firm (100–499 employees), four (4) small firms (1–99 employees), one (1) other SME (1–499 employees) and two (2) other private sector enterprises incorporated pursuant to the laws of Canada and carrying on business in Canada, are among the Lead Applicant and Partner Applicants.
Any “free money” would only be issued by the federal government to those able to match the dollars on a 1:1 basis. In other words, unless you were already a major corporation with millions available for new commercial innovation, don’t bother applying – you won’t qualify for funding.
The application criteria excluded ordinary Atlantic Canadians and Prince Edward Islanders (other than a handful of businesses and post-secondary institutions who might benefit from “contracts” issued by the huge corporations driving and administering the project) yet the Ocean Supercluster winning announcement was presented as universal “good news” for the region creating the feeling that each and every one of us had a share in the winning lottery ticket. Not true.
Oceans 15: The February Announcement
On February 15, 2018, the Guardian published a prepared News Release from the Canadian Press titled, “Feds name five ‘superclusters’ that will share $950M in government cash,” using the “we-won-the-lottery” analogy:
“The federal government named the five winning bids Thursday of its high-tech ‘superclusters’ sweepstakes that will divvy up $950 million of public funding in hope of stoking economic growth and job creation in return….The winners, announced by Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, closed out a nine-month competition that represents the centrepiece of the Liberals’ so-called innovation agenda.”
We probably all read – or at least “noticed” – that Guardian article without giving it much thought, then we were inundated with a barrage of news releases either that same day, or within the next few days, from every quarter, offering “congratulations” to the winning Atlantic Canada proposal – each offering their own wildly optimistic comments and predictions about how this amazing economic windfall would bring wealth and wonder to every man, woman and child in Atlantic Canada. So how could we not conclude that the Ocean Supercluster announcement (although we were perhaps still not too clear what exactly it meant) was anything but super good news? How could something with the word “super” in it not be good?
The first thing I noticed is that most of the news releases were not “in response” to the initial announcement from the federal government at all; they had been prepared in advance and released simultaneously with the federal announcement on February 15, 2018. What was up with that? And included in the pack of press releases was one (dated February 15) from the MacLauchlan government.
In keeping with his “Mighty Island” economic slogan and pro-corporate policies aimed at bolstering GDP by giving money and support to already-established companies (thereby encouraging them to grow bigger and increase exports – especially to China) the provincial government’s feel-good news release was fittingly titled “Ocean Supercluster good news for province.” In part, it read:
“This is tremendous news for our province and the marine science and technology companies that call Prince Edward Island and the Atlantic region home,” Economic Development and Tourism Minister Chris Palmer said. “It will also be beneficial to our post secondary institutions by providing funding for important research and development activities aimed at spurring innovation in these industries.”
Hon. Chris Palmer – perhaps without realizing it fully – articulated quite accurately that the only real “beneficiaries” from the Ocean Supercluster in PEI would be a few marine-based businesses and post-secondary institutions. What he failed to explain, however, was that this entire initiative was making both our smaller-scaled businesses and educational institutions even more dependent on global corporations for funding – only now that funding was our own money that we handed over to corporations – a political maneuver that can only be characterized as a massive breach of public trust by both our federal and provincial governments. Perhaps even more disheartening to me is the way in which this Ocean Supercluster initiative further transforms and corrupts our post-secondary institutions – again – with our own money. Let me explain.
The Ocean Supercluster and Universities
There has rightly been a growing concern over the past number of years that UPEI has been steadily moving away from “educating” students (relying on a traditional “Liberal Arts and Humanities” approach to higher learning) to “training and preparing” students to fill the industrial needs of an increasingly corporate-controlled and owned world.
Now that multinational corporations have become the gods of higher learning, the Ocean Supercluster announcement afforded the high priest of UPEI an occasion to burn incense and pay homage before the altar of global capitalism, acknowledging that corporations are now an integral and increasingly-essential source of revenue both fueling and remaking the University into their own “image and likeness.”
Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, UPEI’s president and vice-chancellor, joined with leaders across the Atlantic region (again, on the very same day as the federal announcement, February 15) issuing his own Ocean Supercluster news release saying:
“The student experience at UPEI has been enhanced in recent years through our close relationships with industry. We are ready to build on these relationships and make significant and lasting contributions to this important economic initiative for our region.”
And UPEI was not the only University in Atlantic Canada to cheer the news: Memorial University in Newfoundland issued its own “same-day” congratulations, highlighting its “well-established industry partnerships,” with the oil and gas industry, and also mentioning the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) which, as it explained
“…represents an unprecedented partnership among Memorial, Dalhousie University and the University of Prince Edward Island. Established in September 2016 with more than $220 million in funding from governments, industry and international research organizations, oceans research and development.”
If you – like me – don’t believe that transforming our universities into industrial training camps designed to generate new technologies for profit-driven corporations (which governments and students continue to pay for) then you’ll find what University Affairs [“Canada’s most authoritative source of information about and for Canada’s university community” their words, not mine] had to say about the impact that the $950 million federal supercluster initiative will have on Canadian Universities especially disturbing. The following information reported by University Affairs was captured from an industry-led panel discussion held in Ottawa after the Minister’s February 15, 2018 supercluster announcement:
A panel discussion with a representative from each supercluster followed the announcement. Several speakers commented on how the supercluster initiative will significantly impact the postsecondary sector. Not only will it lead to more funding for targeted research, it will lead to new opportunities for researchers to bring their work to the market and for students to get hands-on experience in the private sector, they said. Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of the Linamar Corporation and a spokesperson for the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster, addressed the experiential education possibilities, noting that “100 percent of students” should get this kind of opportunity. “That’s what’s going to bring us [academia and business] closer together.”
Many (but not all) Canadian universities were enticed into participating in this current government-funded, private sector-led supercluster initiative. In fact, participation by at least one post-secondary institution was a required condition for applicants. It now appears this new “industry-led” approach – using public dollars – is likely to become the norm for future university funding, where university programs will increasingly be shaped by the needs of corporations.
Universities Canada (UC) states that it is a membership organization providing university presidents from 96 Canadian members with a unified voice for higher education, research and innovation, and bills itself as “the Voice of Canadian Universities.” UC’s president, Paul Davidson, signalled that many more Universities are prepared to get involved in this new approach when he said:
“Universities play a crucial role in building Canada’s innovation capacity, and our members across the country look forward to being key partners in these superclusters to help drive innovation and growth in our changing global economy….The new superclusters offer a collaborative way to build ambitious new partnerships between the private sector and our institutions, bringing the expertise, skills, and discoveries of university researchers and students to the maximum benefit of Canadians.”
And herein lies the core deception and main problem with this strengthened collaboration between corporations and Canadian Universities: whenever hundreds of millions of federal tax revenue are handed over to corporations and then used to “fund” research designed to meet the commercial goals of corporations, it does not lead to the “maximum benefit of Canadians;” it leads to the maximum benefit of corporations (who already wield far too much power and control within our economy, universities and world). By embracing this corporate-driven model our federal government is effectively “privatizing” aspects of post-secondary institutions which increases the capacity of corporations to control the intellectual property generated by universities, use that property to further maximize their profits; which in turn allows them to further increase and exert their power over the rest of us; expedite the consolidation of their wealth; and strengthen their control of both natural resources and the economy.
The barrage of positive news releases about the Atlantic Region first being short-listed ( 1 of 9 short-listed from 50 applicants) back in early October, 2017; then winning the Ocean Supercluster bid (1 of 5 winners from the short-listed group of 9) and then becoming eligible for up to $250 million “free dollars” – was delivered as if we are all “winners”, which is simply not true. It also obscured the truth about how this federal economic “innovation” strategy further puts universities in the back-pocket of global corporations, while hiding the real benefactors of this large-scale corporate give-away.
Who’s Really behind the Corporate-driven “Ocean Supercluster”?
According to the Application Guide for the SCI, each “supercluster” application required a “Lead Applicant” and “Partner Applicants“. The Lead Applicant for the Ocean Supercluster is Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (PRNL) – which is made up of the five oil companies operating offshore Newfoundland and Labrador [Chevron Canada Resources; ExxonMobil Canada Ltd.; Husky Energy; Statoil Canada; and, Suncor Energy].
What other corporations are involved? When the Ocean Supercluster was short-listed back in October, 2017 it was reported that PRNL was in partnership with 25 other innovation organizations; however, the identities of those organizations were not made public at the time. Some additional information became public with the February 15th announcement. Three other “core investor partners” with PRNL were identified, with each committing $15 million to the Ocean Supercluster: Emera, Clearwater Seafoods, and Cuna del Mar, an open ocean aquaculture promoter.
Other corporate powerhouses also involved are J.D. Irving; Canada Steamship Lines; Microsoft; Ocean Choice Inc.; Siemens; and Cooke Seafood, which are undoubtedly also contributing millions to the project. In all, $200 million has been committed by the private sector as part of the Ocean Supercluster group.
So who gets to own and control what is developed?
The federal Program Guide for the Innovation Supercluster Initiative (ISI) did not spell out in detail who would “own” the intellectual property rights for any new technology developed as a result of the government-sponsored initiative – leaving that up to the managing structure for each supercluster – but it did provide guidelines that make two things obvious: (1) despite a substantial contribution from public funds, the “public” (e.g., government and Canadian taxpayers) will not have any intellectual property rights over new products and/or discoveries arising from the innovation strategy; and (2) those who make the largest “dollar-for-dollar” matching contributions can establish the terms that ensure they will own and control intellectual property rights over new products and/or discoveries:
Other reasonable restrictions may be a tiered membership model wherein greater contribution to the Entity entitles a Member to greater intellectual property access, including the right to sell or otherwise commercialize the intellectual property or an aspect of it. (Section 126.96.36.199 “Frictionless Access to Entity Supported Intellectual Property”)
This shows how the so-called “partners” in the Ocean supercluster are not really partners in the traditional sense of the word at all – where there is an equal degree of power or “say” in what transpires. This model is one where those who “pay the piper call the tune” while those who put no money into the project (e.g., small businesses, universities) will simply receive funding to develop the technologies which the principal corporate players believe can be “commercialized” and bring them profit: innovations which corporations will not only be able to use, but will own and continue to profit from on a “go-forward” basis. There’s lots of talk about collaboration and partnerships, but when you get right down to it, the Ocean supercluster model is more akin to a business alliance between a principal “contractor” and “subcontractors,” where the expertise and services of subcontractors are solicited and paid for by the principal contractors who will then own the work product.
Given the lack of detailed, background knowledge among the general public and media concerning the Ocean Supercluster announcement – and the carefully choreographed “good news” approach which drove that announcement – it’s not surprising there’s been next to no critical assessments undertaken about this federal corporate give-away. As stated at the outset of my article, if the headline had read “Trudeau gives Corporations nearly a Billion dollars,” I’m sure there would have been a much different public and media reaction.
One Commentary in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald does raise concerns about how the federal government and Ocean Supercluster has wrongly equated “innovative research” with what can be commercialized in his article titled “Narrow interpretation of innovation leads to exclusion.” He notes the unfortunate and “exclusive” focus on the private sector:
Ironically, the government’s innovation agenda is unimaginative. By centring solely on technology innovation, the most creative sectors in our economy — the arts, social enterprises, and non-profits (often referred to as the “social economy”) — are overlooked.
Although Canada’s Superclusters Initiative is an economic development policy lever, it appears to focus strictly on collaboration between businesses and research institutions, which already have a history. There’s a seeming disregard for social and artistic innovation and their potential contribution to not only these clusters, but to the generation of new ideas and more equitable and creative societies.
Much more could be said on this topic but my article is already too long. I haven’t said anything about whether we should be concentrating future economic activity on increased extraction of resources from the ocean when it’s already in such disarray; or what checks and balances are in place to ensure that new ‘innovative” technologies which may be developed don’t jeopardize or further deplete those resources.
It really saddens me to think how $200 million could have been used to create a more sustainable and vibrant economic and social future for Atlantic Canada – if only it had been made available to young couples wanting to start organic farms; small-scale cottage industries; small craft, music and artistic businesses; local metal and wood fabricators, alternative energy companies, etc. but what did our federal government do with that money? They handed it over to some of the biggest corporations in the world and employed a deceptive PR campaign to convince us we won the lottery! And not surprisingly, the pro-corporate MacLauchlan government calls that “good news,” which is both depressing and borderline criminal. When will be get ethical politicians with vision?