Equality of opportunity, not outcome: Economic development edition
Do you remember a few years ago when the top five research universities in Canada submitted a proposal suggesting the federal government should focus its research spending in the top five? The argument was that Canada is competing with the top universities around the world for research $$ and talent and we should focus all of our effort where we had the greatest capacity to compete.
Needless to say the other 50+ universities in Canada were not particularly happy about this proposal. It caused quite a stir.
While the proposal died, there was some concern at the time that the feds would follow this idea anyway - just stealthily.
At least so far it doesn’t look like it. In fact, of the top 50 universities by sponsored research income, the bottom 40 actually saw a much larger increase in combined R&D funding in recent years. UNB R&D spending is up over this time frame but still well below its highest a decade+ ago of $52 million/year. UdeM has been slowly increasing its research activity.
The idea that governments should focus all their effort on ‘winners’ has been around for a very long time and not just for universities. We hear the same thing for communities.
Why worry about smaller communities and rural areas? Even smaller cities, if they can’t compete - let’s focus on those communities that can. In fact, we heard throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, let’s encourage people in the failing regions to move to the successful regions.
We hear the same thing in New Brunswick but as I have said many times: Saint John is to Toronto as Chipman is to Toronto. If your logic is that Canada should focus on the largest urban centres that can best compete with Hong Kong and New York, then say good bye to Saint John, Fredericton, Charlottetown, St. John’s and Regina.
Like universities, all communities large and small have assets and attributes that can be leveraged for economic development. What I am looking for is a good faith effort to do the ‘leveraging’. I’m not expecting Bathurst to boom like Moncton (although it might some day).
So, in my vision, we decentralize some core economic development functions such as the identification and advancement of local development opportunities and, in smaller provinces at least, we centralize functions that require scale such as FDI attraction and efforts to promote global trade.
Economic development is not solely a mercenary function where we are trying to maximize outcomes no matter the cost to local communities.
If your community is facing greater headwinds than others, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Every community has potential. Yours might take more effort to develop.