Biotechnology and American Competitiveness Webinar: How the US Can Maintain its Edge
Biotechnology is an often-overlooked breeding ground of innovation, solutions, but also conflict. It is the source of mRNA vaccines and similarly groundbreaking products. It presents solutions to global issues such as food scarcity, disease transmission, and climate change. Biotechnology seems like the path to a comfortable future, but such a powerful tool warrants a warning label: China’s bioeconomy is growing by the day, and the US may soon be involved in a new kind of warfare.
On June 2, 2021, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) hosted a webinar on Biotechnology and American Competitiveness. It focused on the current state of US biotechnology and the steps the country must take to maintain its competitive edge. The panelists included Dr. Diane DiEuliis, a senior research fellow at National Defense University; Dr. Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks; Dr. Tara O’Toole, the executive vice president of In-Q-Tel; and Dr. Megan Palmer, the executive director of Bio Policy and Leadership Initiatives at Stanford. Each panelist provided unique advice on improving the US’s approach to developing biotechnology quickly and safely. Their advice boils down to four overarching points: motivating students, encouraging collaboration, publicizing data, and informing citizens.
An industry is only as strong as its workforce. Looking to the future, the next generation will comprise the cutting-edge researchers and developers of biotechnology. In the meantime, the US must capture the interest of young folks through ambitious projects. The Human Genome Project, started in 1990, exemplifies how a large-scale project can interest millions of people across the globe; initiating a similar project in the coming years will introduce a new generation of students to biotechnology. Projects on this scale also bring together the public and private sectors, a necessary step for improving our bio infrastructure.
Diverse perspectives will help the US find all-encompassing solutions. There are three types of partnerships to be encouraged: government and industry, biotechnology and adjacent fields, and international alliances.
Because the industry has taken the lead on biotechnology, the government must take a supporting role. This includes providing funds and setting industry standards. The US government has already made some promising offers such as the NSF tech directorate, which will inject money into biotechnology research and other STEM fields.
Biotechnology researchers must also draw from adjacent fields such as AI and immunology. To address safety concerns, building on existing and approved technology can help researchers incorporate safety even before development.
Despite the US’ resources, biotechnology poses goals that are ambitious for one country. A fear of China or Russia should not discourage collaboration with other countries. In the far future, the world will share a single bio infrastructure; it is important that the US keeps this picture in mind and remains open to collaboration.
Publicly available data is a key component to both previous points. First, a large-scale project that involves students will require public data. Second, public data breaks down barriers to collaboration. Effective biotechnology will warrant the genetic sequencing of the diverse flora and fauna in the US. The best approach to building a national database of sequences is to allow public submissions. Because of the practicality of such a database, the “next Human Genome Project” will likely be a mass sequencing project.
Many citizens are understandably anxious about “modifying” nature, and they have no reason to trust the industry. To build trust with citizens, the industry should remain transparent through the development process of any product. It should also be transparent about both the benefits and the risks of biotechnology. Although it has the potential to solve global issues, every product has an inherent risk, and the industry must be held accountable. Transparency is a way for public opinion to influence development; if the public rejects a certain approach, researchers can find a new one without starting over.
China aims to have a leading bioeconomy by 2025. If the US fails to improve its bio infrastructure in a timely manner, it will not be prepared for the threats to come. Although China does not participate heavily in research and development, it still has access to the public results and can build on other countries’ work. With China’s food scarcity issues, it undoubtedly has a focus on genetically altering and reproducing crops. If it aims to be a leader in biotechnology, China is also likely in the conceptual or early stages of a mass sequencing project. For all the good such technology offers, agricultural modification and mass sequencing can also be used for harm. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of a global pandemic have become concrete for many US citizens. If the US does not prepare itself, there may one day be an infectious disease released intentionally into the country with devastating results. Alternatively, a country like China may wipe out US crops or livestock in a similar fashion. Biotechnology is not purely about innovation; it is about protecting the US from biothreats as international powers claw their way to the top. Researchers and engineers look forward to the day that biotechnology is implemented on a unified, global scale. Until that day arrives, the US must prepare itself for whatever the future holds.
Topics: Emerging Technologies