By JOHN RISLEY (AIMS Chairman of the Board)

On November 24, Atlantic Canada submitted an application to the federal government for funding under the Super Cluster program. If we are successful (we might know the answer by the time this is published), the program will unleash over $400 million of incremental research investment in our marine resources sector over the next five years. What makes this a potential game changer for our regional economy isn’t so much the amount of money being spent, but how it must be spent.

The federal government requires successful applicants to organize themselves into clusters with a board of directors who will authorize the research programs or initiatives which will qualify for matching funding. Ottawa will subscribe a dollar for every dollar invested by the private sector. Successful programs must demonstrate collaboration across various marine sectors. This required collaboration and cooperation is at the heart of what makes this different.

To better appreciate the implications of this, you need to understand that such cooperation is virtually non-existent today. Not only do the sectors of our ocean industry operate independently, they often have no idea what others are doing. This can lead to suspicions and conflict. What damage are the tidal energy folks doing to fish habitats? What are the implications of further intensive marine farming in coastal areas? What are the risks and consequences of an oil spill from drilling activity? With each issue, the walls between the sectors get taller and wider. This is not the way to extract value from our ocean environment, nor is it the correct path to understanding how to manage that environment in a responsible manner.

We need to move to a new model. We have amazing people and resources within our university communities. We have a significant National Research Council ocean commitment to the region. We have the Bedford Institute, the home of some $300 million a year in oceans spending. And of course we have the private sector doing any number of things on its own initiative.

The super cluster program’s goal is to bring us all closer together. Just having an appreciation for the assets, the capability and the knowledge base of all these resources will be a huge step forward.

Still, if this is all we achieve we will have failed. We must use our new oceans super cluster as a catalyst to move toward a plan. This plan would not just have specific targets for each ocean sector, it would demonstrate to the public, to governments and to the world at large what we are focused on achieving over the next 25 years.

For example: I don’t know how many tonnes of farmed salmon we produce now in the region but let’s say we had a goal to increase that production by 500 per cent over the next 25 years. How can this be accomplished without negatively impacting the wild salmon population? Where can it be done? Would we have to change feed sources so such volumes can be grown sustainably? These are just a few of the questions that cluster-oriented research would be required to resolve. The same principles would apply to the offshore energy sector. What ambitious goals would then be possible? What problems would we need to solve or overcome to reach these goals? What would be the benefit of reaching such goals for each sector? How can we marshal the considerable resources of the region to focus on achieving these goals, once we have the involvement and agreement of the entire cluster?

This type of big picture planning would set and drive policy. No more ad hocery. No more trying to push one sector forward at the expense of another. Just think of it: Atlantic Canada working together to create a strong regional economy built around a globally competitive ocean sciences research sector, with a vibrant start-up community focused on the emerging opportunities, a healthy SME sector profitably engaged in serving the industrial-scale activity taking place and a large corporate component looking to make significant investments in scaling their presence in the region.

This is not just the stuff dreams are made of—it’s actually possible. Fingers crossed!