This fall marks the 50th anniversary of a fateful meeting at a deli in Hawaii where two scientists, both in town for a conference, collaborated over corned beef sandwiches on the idea that would give rise to the modern biotechnology industry, now with a global market share topping $1 trillion, according to one recent global analysis. The story of scientists Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer is a classic tale of American innovation. Their invention of an efficient, reliable method for gene transfer spawned a whole new sector of companies, whose products range from lifesaving drugs and disease resistant plants to climate-friendly fuels and materials.
Fast forward to 2022: Biotechnology has become a key tool for improving our quality of life, from producing more effective cleaning products, to better vaccines that support wide public health. It is also a science representing extraordinary possibilities for solving complex challenges such as climate-change, food insecurity, and public health, economic development.
Imagine climate-friendly countertops made from fish scales and turning banana peels or avocado seeds into bioplastic products. Luxury furniture made out of fungus and cell phones created from plants and powered by engineered microbes. Transforming food waste into everything from organic fertilizers to construction materials. Even 3D printed organs for transplant.
The future of biotechnology marries imagination with innovation and will open manufacturing pipelines and job opportunities across the country.
For all the important advances that were made in the U.S. biotechnology space during the past few decades, it also is the case that global competition has increased, as well, during the same era.
Countries around the world are making strategic investments, developing ambitious policy roadmaps, and offering economic incentives with the goal of establishing national biotechnology industries that could surpass the United States. According to Forbes, China has invested more than $500 billion in biotechnology and biomanufacturing over the last six years, and has become dominant in controlling the bio-based supply chain. India has launched a major push to become a global biomanufacturing hub. The European Union has released a Bioeconomy Strategy, which includes prioritizing bio-based industries and unlocking new markets. While the United States still holds the leading edge in biotechnology innovation and production, we can no longer take our market-leading role for granted.
To accelerate the transformation of biotechnology advancements into solutions for real world problems, the Biden-Harris administration has launched the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative through a new executive order, which has the potential to improve the everyday lives of all people.
And, at the White House Office of Science and Technology policy, we believe in the power of science and technology to improve health, prosperity, and security, but we know those goals are only truly achieved when the benefits are shared equitably. That’s why this initiative helps ensure that the biotechnology invented here leads to products that are made here, using the biomass — from corn in Iowa to tobacco in North Carolina to fish in Alaska — grown in communities across the country.
This is a chance to sharpen the nation’s cutting edge of life science research and development through investments that not only advance our innovative leadership, but also build in principles of equity, ethics, safety, and security from the very outset.
Even as we fulfill the promise of a bio-based future, we must always be aware of the perils, including complex ethical dilemmas and biosecurity concerns, and the best way to make sure we mitigate that risk is through global leadership and example. To minimize the risks of unintended consequences from these powerful tools, the U.S. bioeconomy must model the norms of biosafety, biosecurity, and wise and equitable governance technology governance that we’d like to see embraced worldwide. That means committing as a whole government to improve clarity and efficiency of regulatory process for biotechnology products. It means engaging with stakeholders domestically and internationally to identify areas of ambiguity, publishing plain-language clarification and information about which bodies are responsible for oversight, providing timelines to implement regulatory reform, and enhancing biotechnology government cooperation.
If we want to corner the market on bioproducts we haven’t even imagined yet, we cannot afford to leave any talent behind, which is why we are expanding training and educational opportunities for the biotechnology and biomanufacturing workforce, with an emphasis on advancing racial and gender equity and inclusion of underserved communities.
In signing the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, President Biden acknowledged the leap-forward it represents, specifically, its historic investment in innovation aimed squarely at the public interests. He noted, “We are the United States of America, a singular place of possibilities.”
Harnessing the possibilities of biotechnology, to the fullest extent possible will make our country healthier, cleaner, and more secure. If you thought the last 50 years of the biotech revolution were exciting, wait until you see what comes next.
Carrie D. Wolinetz, Ph.D. is the Deputy Director for Health & Life Sciences for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where she helps advance priority presidential efforts including pandemic preparedness, health systems & health equity, and accelerating innovation to patients.