The U.S. bioeconomy is now worth almost $1 trillion USD, and it got there by smart government investment, smart policies, and smart money. But a new national report, citing SynBioBeta data, warns that international competition, regulation, lagging workforce training and education, meager research investment, and many other factors threaten the U.S.’s lead in the bioeconomy.
That’s a big deal for the U.S., because bio is 5% of the country’s GDP—and the number is growing.
The report, entitled “Safeguarding the Bioeconomy,” looks at how research and innovation in the life sciences is driving rapid growth in agriculture, biomedical science, information science and computing, energy, and other sectors of the U.S. economy. This economic activity—collectively referred to as the bioeconomy—presents many opportunities to create jobs, improve the quality of life, and continue to drive the U.S. economy as a whole.
The report says that while the U.S. has been a leader in advancements in the biological sciences, other countries are actively investing in and expanding their capabilities in this area—and the U.S.’s lead is beginning to slip.
Four reasons everyone should care about the U.S. bioeconomy
It might be easy for some to dismiss the report out of hand as a bunch of alarmist professors lobbying for more research money. But when you consider all the ways that biotechnology powers the economy and impacts our daily lives, it becomes clear that this is about something more:
- The economy: at $1 trillion in value, the U.S. bioeconomy represents hundreds of thousands of quality, high-paying jobs for Americans.
- Health & medicine: innovators in the bioeconomy are making next-generation therapies for cancer and diabetes, tackling emerging diseases like Coronavirus, and even increasing human longevity.
- Food & farming: biotechnology is not only making agriculture more sustainable, it’s also bringing to market new and improved crops that are more nutritious, more affordable, and more delicious.
- The environment: humanity’s health and well-being depend on our ability to stop and reverse climate change, and we can’t do it without biological solutions that treat carbon not as a waste product, but as the starting point for chemicals and materials that today use petroleum.
Considering all this, it doesn’t seem like an overstatement when the report authors say that U.S. competitiveness in the bioeconomy is key to maintaining the economic health and security of the country.
The very real risks to the U.S. bioeconomy
There are many things that can go wrong, causing the U.S. to lose its current edge in the global bioeconomy. Some of these are economic risks, and others present serious national security risks. All of them are related to a failure of our government to act now. Here’s a sampling of the risks to U.S. leadership at the frontiers of tech and bio:
- Insufficient government R&D investment. Money for basic research and development builds the foundations of the bioeconomy. We learn, achieve new results, and create new applications. Investments that help develop enabling tools, technologies, and standards have the potential to maintain the U.S. bioeconomy competitive in a global bioeconomy.
- Ineffective or inefficient regulations. Regulatory uncertainty stifles creative new approaches that may have unknown paths, long delays, or that might be prohibited by later changes.
- Inadequate workforce. The U.S.’s K-12 education system may not prepare students to study STEM subjects at the university and postgraduate level, hindering the quality of workers. A skilled workforce gives U.S. companies the best talent to choose from, and it also encourages international firms to establish research and production facilities here.
- Ineffective or inefficient intellectual property protections. Uncertainty over what is patentable could discourage innovators who are considering whether and how to bring their innovations to market. Patent eligibility is also important to venture capitalists and private equity investors when considering whether to invest in biotechnology companies.
- Cybersecurity. As biological engineering depends more and more on massive datasets, the emerging bioeconomy now exists at the intersection of information science and biotechnological science. The bioeconomy’s growing reliance on software, networking, and computer hardware tools yields the same cyber vulnerabilities present in any other sector, including hacking, sabotage, breached privacy, or theft of intellectual property.
- Biosafety and biosecurity risks. The tools of today’s bioeconomy are enabling new capabilities that can generate concerns regarding traditional biothreats. These can include the accidental or intentional creation or release of dangerous or lethal pathogens. Such biothreats can harm humans, animals, plants, agriculture, the environment, and materials.
- Risks from climate change. Food and feed crops, biofuels crops, and crops used with bio-based fermentation products are susceptible to temperature and water stresses, as well as insects and pathogens that migrate with changing weather patterns.
China: the biotech elephant in the room
I’ve written previously written how the Chinese government is already making substantial investments in its bioeconomy. Here are three scary statistics, courtesy of Greg B. Scott of the ChinaBio Group:
- China is out-investing the U.S. China’s private investors poured $14.4 billion into its bioeconomy in 2019. That compares to the United States’ more meager investment of $10.4 billion.
- China is building a bigger bioeconomy workforce. China graduates about 8-10 million students each year. In the U.S., that number is closer to 400,000. Many Chinese students graduating from U.S. institutions stay here, but they are increasingly returning home to start highly innovative companies.
- China is investing in itself. Historically, China has invested heavily in foreign companies, tech, and debt. Now we’re seeing an uptick in China-to-China investments—the country no longer needs to look abroad to find plenty of good biotech opportunities.
Chinese investments have led to centers of excellence in the regional technology hub of Shenzhen, including the Institute of Synthetic Biology at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Sciences (SIAT) and BGI Genomics. Shenzhen will compete for technological and economic leadership with U.S. regional biotech powerhouses such as San Francisco/Silicon Valley and Boston/Cambridge in the years to come.
Many of China’s long-standing challenges—environment, food, water, waste management, and rapid innovation to retain its global manufacturing competitiveness—are areas where synthetic biology is seen as a key technology for the future. In other words, synthetic biology is not just an academic pursuit for China. Rather, its leaders are thinking proactively about how biological engineering can be used to address the country’s strategic national interests—while U.S. leadership stands idly by.
What do we do?
So what can U.S. policymakers do to protect the U.S. bioeconomy and ensure continued technological and economic leadership in biology for the next twenty years?
- Straight from the top. China has made clear its ambition to become a global tech superpower, with President Xi Jinping calling science and technology one of the main battlefronts of the economy. The U.S. administration needs to step up its game, too. President Trump recently declared January 2020 to be National Biotechnology Month, citing “boundless possibilities for economic growth, national security, healthcare, manufacturing, and agriculture.” That’s the right sentiment—now we need real action.
- New legislation. Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Engineering Biology Research and Development Act of 2019, which would direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to implement a national research strategy for engineering biology. The explicit goal: maintain U.S. science, technology, and economic leadership in synthetic biology. The bill now resides in the Senate and awaits committee action. Legislative leadership is now needed to give this bill the appropriations necessary to give it real teeth, and then put it squarely on the President’s desk.
- Investing for returns. The Human Genome Project is said to have returned $141 for every dollar invested by taxpayers. While “Big Science” yields tremendous benefits for everyone, it doesn’t happen without federal funding. In 2019, politically courageous Republicans and Democrats came together to produce a 2020 final spending bill that is kind to science, in essence ignoring President Trump’s proposed cuts and instead giving increases to each of the NIH, NSF, NASA, and DOE’s Office of Science. But the U.S. isn’t even in the top ten for R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, while China continues to close in on the U.S., meaning that the U.S. is no longer the uncontested global leader in science.
Leading the global bioeconomy: Have some courage
There are many things the U.S. could do to protect the American bioeconomy. But above all else, policymakers need to come together and demonstrate the kind of courage and vision needed to be a world leader. Science and technology know no partisan lines. Everybody wants healthy lives, clean water, and good jobs. Federal initiative and assistance are needed to bring these benefits to everyone living in the U.S..
Today, the American synthetic biology industry may be unprepared for the global competition it will face, lacking initiative and leadership at the highest levels of government. But this could change quickly. If a country like the U.S. makes engineering biology a national priority, anything is possible in the new bioeconomy.
Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and editing in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/02/03/china-now-out-invests-america-in-the-global-bioeconomy-by-30/0