Jan. 14, 2020

U.S. Bioeconomy Is Strong, But Faces Challenges; Expanded Efforts in Coordination, Talent, Security, and Fundamental Research Are Needed

WASHINGTON – The U.S. is a clear leader in the global bioeconomy landscape, but faces challenges from decentralized leadership, inadequate talent development, cybersecurity vulnerabilities, stagnant investment in fundamental research, and international competition, according to Safeguarding the Bioeconomy, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. As a major driver of scientific discoveries, spanning fields from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, a vulnerable bioeconomy puts the country’s economy at risk. The report recommends steps the U.S. should take to mitigate these risks and sustain a strong bioeconomy, including forming a coordinating body within the Executive Office of the President to ensure coordination across the science, economic, regulatory, and security agencies.

While historical investments in the bioeconomy protect U.S. leadership in some areas, the report says maintaining that leadership will require careful analysis of policies and features that undergird the bioeconomy, continued commitment from the federal government to invest in science, and support for international cooperation and collaboration.

The bioeconomy is defined as economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology, and that is enabled by technological advances in engineering and in computing and information sciences. An original analysis by the committee that authored the report values the bioeconomy at more than 5 percent of the gross domestic product, or more than $950 billion.

“Americans benefit every day from the bioeconomy in terms of the food we eat, the health care we receive, and the products we buy,” said committee chair Thomas M. Connelly, executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society. “With the right policies and coordination, we can keep the bioeconomy strong and maintain a competitive edge in the face of new threats and global challenges.”

Establishing Bioeconomy Coordination

No one government agency currently has the mandate to monitor, assess, promote, or protect the bioeconomy. To make large-scale coordination possible, the report recommends the Executive Office of the President develop a government-wide strategic coordinating body to safeguard and realize the potential of the bioeconomy. This coordinating body — which should develop and update strategies for sustaining and growing the sector — should be presided over by senior White House leadership and include representation from science, economic, regulatory, and security agencies.

International Competition and Talent

The report says talent development at all levels should be a high priority for investment, and recommends attracting and retaining scientists from around the world. Inadequate funding for universities and training programs could diminish the country’s ability to develop and retain a skilled technical workforce. The report emphasizes that policies created to counter risks from foreign talent could actually adversely affect the bioeconomy, as historically the U.S. has benefitted from the ability to attract and retain international students and scientists to its universities and STEM workforce. The report recommends that any policies to mitigate possible risks posed by foreign researchers should be formulated with input from leading scientists.

While the United States remains among the world’s leaders in public investment in the biological sciences, federal investments have stagnated at a time when other countries, notably China and South Korea, are increasing theirs. To maintain competitiveness, the U.S. should place a high priority on investing in basic biological science, engineering, and computing and information sciences.

Global supply chains and reliance on single-sourced materials or components can disrupt bioeconomy value chains, the report says. The report also cites examples where non-domestic parties have invested in American companies with the goal of acquiring intellectual property. To guard against these risks, the report recommends, scientists and economists should work with the federal government to identify vital value chains and to assist the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States in assessing the national security implications of foreign transactions involving the bioeconomy.

Differences in how nations approach regulation of bioeconomy products, data sharing agreements and practices, and industrial mergers and acquisitions also pose risks, the report says. Government agencies should facilitate bilateral and multilateral discussions among countries in order to drive economic growth, reinforce governance mechanisms, and create a level playing field.

Cybersecurity and Data Access

Inadequate cybersecurity practices and protections expose the bioeconomy to significant risks, because the sector is reliant on open source software, large and potentially sensitive data sets, and Internet communications. For example, the report notes, open source software that underpins many bioeconomy applications may not have been designed with bioeconomy security requirements in mind. The report says all stakeholders should adopt best practices for securing information systems from digital intrusion, exfiltration, or manipulation. To protect the value and utility of biological information databases, government agencies should invest in their modernization, curation, and integrity.

Investments in Fundamental Research

Limits to the U.S.’s ability to conduct fundamental research, either through inadequate funding, restrictive research regulations, or the inability to develop and attract a skilled workforce, can erode our ability to produce breakthrough scientific results that fuel the bioeconomy. Falling behind in life science applications of computational and informational science is a particular risk. The report says erosion in support for U.S. government investment in fundamental research is a concern that must be addressed.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Safeguarding the Bioeconomy: Finding Strategies for Understanding, Evaluating, and Protecting the Bioeconomy While Sustaining Innovation and Growth — was sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit nationalacademies.org.

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Megan Lowry, Media Relations Officer

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