Coordinating the Bioeconomy

via Tim Marler

The United States faces severe risks and opportunities surrounding the bioeconomy, which is based on products, services, and processes derived from biological resources.[1] Mitigating these risks and capitalizing on the opportunities could ultimately provide substantial competitive advantages. Furthermore, the most critical next steps need not involve sweeping and expensive changes; various relevant departments across the Government can likely take basic actions in the near future that can have substantial impact with respect to national security. These actions include a common baseline for discussion and a framework for coordination across the Government.

With challenging issues that range from the privacy of genetic data to the morality of synthetic biology, and with solutions that range from safer and healthier foods to cleaner manufacturing, the field of biotechnology is accelerating with considerable far-reaching implications. A wide range of topics falls under the biotechnology umbrella, including combatting disease, cleaning up environmental pollutants, harnessing scarce natural resources, assessing Warfighter readiness, and developing offensive and defensive military capabilities. Furthermore, the broader bioeconomy covers multiple commercial sectors including pharmaceuticals, crop production, plastics and rubbers, manufacturing, and more.

There are nonetheless a wide range of challenges, especially concerning national security,[2] example of which are noted as follows:

  • An increasing number of health issues are tied to genetic markers and can be identified, if not mitigated, with appropriate use of bio-engineering and/or synthetic biology.
  • The creation, dissemination, and use of “big data” is increasingly related to individual action, characteristics, and performance, all with minimal objective studies concerning implications and recommendations for management.
  • There are growing risks of information mismanagement and materiel misuse with respect to biotechnology, particularly in the realms of national security, public health, and environment.
  • Despite risks to people across the globe, stakeholder coordination and demand communication are lacking.[3]
  • There is significant potential for weaponization and terrorism.[4]

Biotechnology directly impacts national security with respect to activities within the US and to external threats,[5] both in terms of industrial competition and military risks. Yet, in many respects, biotechnology – and the bioeconomy more broadly – is still emerging. Thus, now is the time to plan ahead and address pervasive policy issues pro-actively rather than delay and address issues re-actively.

[1] Congressional Research Service, The Bioeconomy: A Primer, August 19, 2021.

[2] The National Academy of Science Engineering Medicine, U.S. Bioeconomy is Strong, but Faces Challenges; Expanded Efforts in Coordination, Talent, Security, and Fundamental Research are Needed, January 14, 2020.

[3] Blaubach et al, “A Strategic Report on the Domestic Biomanufacturing Industry,” The University of Chicago Hacking for Defense, presented to the Air Force Research Lab, January, 2021.

[4] Hessel, A., Goodman, M., Kotler, S. (2012), “Hacking the President’s DNA,” The Atlantic.

[5] Activity within China in particular raises national security concerns.  See Lynch, D.J., “Biotechnology: the US China Dispute over Genetic Data,” Financial Times, July 31, 2017.

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