How to keep America the world leader in science and technology
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U.S. leadership in the technology of biology presents our nation with tremendous opportunity to build the world’s preeminent bioeconomy by delivering novel products and processes to society more sustainably and efficiently.

Many nations around the world, however, are acting fast to build their bioeconomies and surpass U.S. scientific and technological dominance to reap the national security and economic benefits of leadership. We can’t afford to let this happen.

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Advances in biological sciences hold tremendous promise for realizing solutions to today’s challenges, from protecting the population from biological threats and securing access to affordable, sustainable energy to realizing the promise of precision therapies, agriculture and materials and maintaining the health of people and the planet.

 

Biomanufacturing can transform existing industries and create new ones that are more profitable, sustainable and efficient than the status quo. Similarly, smart and modular manufacturing offer significant benefits in terms of customization, precision and control of therapies, healthcare instruments and food products.

The United States has pioneered much of the advancements in biosciences. Foundational work in biology, from the Human Genome Project to early advances in synthetic biology, benefitted from significant U.S. federal investments.

These investments directly led to current assets like the Department of Energy’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory and its Joint Genome Institute that have extended the progress in biological sciences beyond human health to advance research in plants, microorganisms and ecosystems.

These are innovation engines for the nation’s leading scientific research experts, not just with bioscience technology, product and material design but also with advanced manufacturing and data management. Public private partnerships in smart manufacturing and digital manufacturing are offering enabling technologies that can ignite scientific discoveries and technological advancements for the future.

Groundbreaking innovations in biology are already happening in American companies, universities and national labs. For example, the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a government-funded partnership among national laboratories and universities, is leading the way in the development of advanced biofuels and bioproducts from U.S. biomass — a market potentially worth over $700 billion for the United States. Jets are already flying with cleaner and more efficient fuels based on discoveries at the institute.

But other countries are investing much more aggressively and more strategically in supporting the growth of their bioeconomies. Dozens of countries around the world, from China and the United Kingdom to Thailand and the Netherlands, have published well-defined bioeconomy roadmaps that identify opportunities, potential bottlenecks and roadblocks, and strategic areas of investments. The United States has yet to identify a similar set of strategic investment priorities. Without one, we are at risk of losing our current leadership position.

To take full advantage of the potential in biosciences for the United States, and to capitalize on the advancements that have been realized, there must be a seismic shift in the way policymakers approach funding and regulating biosciences and biomanufacturing. Likewise, academia and industry must demonstrate to the American public the current and future value of advanced biosciences to U.S. prosperity.

We cannot hope to make advances without a strategic, aggressive, focused and coordinated effort to reduce silos and identify synergies among federal agencies, industry, universities and our national laboratories. Cross-sector collaboration to advance this key sector of the U.S. economy is critical.

Organizations like the Council on Competitiveness are bringing together leaders from these groups to pave the path forward for competitiveness in bioscience and the manufacturing potential that ensues. But more must be done at the federal level. The council recently published a report that calls on policymakers in the Trump administration and Congress to take action in the following ways.

First, develop an annual strategic roadmap for the advancement of bioscience and biotechnologies to meet energy, environmental, agricultural, national security and economic goals. Second, coordinate investments across agencies, broaden disbursement to cross-disciplinary fields and focus federal investment in the development of research platforms that more quickly deliver solutions to society. Third, enable bioscience research platforms to deliver novel and cost-prohibitive capabilities to industry. Finally, facilitate the nexus of biology, engineering and manufacturing technology and training.

While there is hope, significant progress must be made. With continued cross-sector partnerships, a coordinated effort, and a renewed faith in the promise of science for a better future, bioscience can transform our economy and reposition America as a global leader in technology and innovation.

Thomas Reed, Ph.D., is founder and chief science officer of Intrexon. He is a molecular geneticist with more than 20 years of experience in recombinant DNA technology.

Deborah Wince-Smith is president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness. She has testified before Congress and appears regularly on CNBC, CNN and Fox News.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.