Reactions to The U.S. Bioeconomy Blueprint: Innovation and concerns loom on the horizon.

The 2012 U.S. National Bioeconomy Blueprint was announced on April 26th with the purpose of assessing strategic objectives to maximise on the U.S. bioeconomy potential and to highlight ongoing efforts to meet those objectives.

However, many are concerned that the blueprint predominantly focuses on economic development while insufficiently addressing regulations to minimise social and environmental impact.

The blueprint attributes growth in the current U.S. bioeconomy sector to the development of three foundational technologies including genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, and automated high-throughput manipulations of biomolecules. It goes on to emphasise the reliance of tomorrow’s bioeconomy on the development of emerging technologies such as synthetic biology (engineering of microbes and plants), proteomics (study and manipulation of proteins in an organism), and bioinformatics (application of computational techniques to biological and related data).

The National Bioeconomy Blueprint describes five strategic objectives with the potential to generate economic growth and address societal needs.

1. Support R&D investments that will provide the foundation for the future U.S. bioeconomy in order to overcome market failures that occur when private investors are unable to collect on the full benefits of their investments and provide smaller investments in technology than the socially optimal level. This is dependent on the expansion and development of essential technologies, integration of approaches across fields and the implementation of improved funding mechanisms.

2.  Facilitate the transition of bioinventions from research lab to market, including an increased focus on translational and regulatory sciences. This relies on acceleration of progress to market to move innovation beyond the laboratory, enhancement of entrepreneurship at universities to facilitate the path from research to commercialization, and the utilization of Federal Procurement Authority to drive the creation and growth of new bioeconomy markets.

3. Develop and reform regulations to reduce barriers, increase the speed and predictability of regulatory processes, and reduce costs while protecting human and environmental health. This involves improved regulatory processes and regulations to enhance predictability and reduce uncertainty in regulatory processes and requirements as well as collaboration with stakeholders to inform efforts, stream­line processes, reduce costs and response times while simultaneously maintaining  safety and benefit to public health.

4.  Update training programs and align academic institution incentives with student training for national workforce needs at the K-12 and undergraduate levels. This will result from employer-educator partnerships and redeveloped training programs.

5. Identify and support opportunities for the development of public-private partnerships and precompetitive collaborations where competitors pool resources, knowledge, and expertise to learn from successes and failures.

In introducing the bioeconomy blueprint panel discussion that followed the blueprint announcement, panel moderator and microbiologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler describes the Obama administration as “committed to investing in biological research with the overarching goal of strengthening America’s bioeconomy”.

While the blueprint recognises that biotechnological experimentation carries inherent potential risks if applied improperly, it contends that that ethical and safety issues raised by major advances are top administrative priorities that “go beyond the scope of this [blueprint].”  Rather, the blueprint is “a guide for departments and agencies to ensure that the investments they make in the sector will be well coordinated and highly likely to generate real economic impact,” according to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy Director John P. Holdren in his announcement of the blueprint.

Panel member Dr. Rina Singh, spoke on behalf of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which represents many of the largest oil and petrochemical producers, and discussed innovation in industrial biotechnology, or the application of life sciences to conventional manufacturing and synthetic processes, through the use of wild type or genetically enhanced microbes.  Dr. Singh paints a picture of vast manufacturing application possibilities to revolutionize the way we make and use energy, where she envisions biorefineries replacing petroleum refineries, the same way that petroleum once replaced whale oil.

However, many are concerned that the reallocation of efforts to harvest above ground sources of fuel “ignores the lessons to be learned from experiences” and that the reliance on biomass for fuel and raw materials ”will inevitably place an extremely heavy toll on food security, and further escalate forest and biodiversity destruction, land grabbing, and climate change,” according to the Global Forest Coalition 2012 report titled “Bioeconomy versus Biodiversity.”

These concerns were shared by Eric Hoffman, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth who commented that the bioeconomy blueprint “largely seems to be an endorsement for the biotechnology industry to rush ahead without any real oversight.”

A more welcomed blueprint emphasis was placed on efforts to incite collaboration among many various federal and private research agencies alongside the creation of a newly trained workforce in order to achieve novel products, processes and applications.

An example of collaborative potential for innovation was provided by panel member and cellular and molecular pharmacology expert  Dr. Keith Yamamoto who discussed the applicability of precision medicine, which builds on the collaboration of non-traditional fields in the biomedical arena such as engineering and mathematics as well as patient data to generate medical solutions for diagnoses and treatments of diseases that are tailored to individual patients rather than decisions based on statistical risk factors across large populations.

Dr Yamamoto emphasizes that the evolution of such highly specified methodologies heavily relies on a reassessment of academic process in graduate education and non Ph.D. level in order to rapidly create a much needed new work force and a collaborative continuum among discovery researchers, academia, industry entrepreneurs, foundations, government funding and regulatory agents and patients.

The reassessment of academia incentives was also discussed by the 2001 World Food Prize winner and panel member Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen who noted that biological science applications have contributed to yearly increases in food sources, provided food security in many parts of the world; however, he remarks that “the job is not done yet” and further research is needed to achieve what he calls “sustainable amplification” of food to ensure people eat enough and yet not too much to avoid burdening the health care system.

Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen believes that for progress to occur, there is a strong need to eliminate what he calls “disciplinary silos” which limit research teams by incentivizing research in narrow areas to produce publications and receive funding. He argues that collaboration requires incentives that stretch beyond money, incentives such as promotions, publication and conferences to support collaboration of interdisciplinary teams.

Similar collaborative efforts are at the forefront of Canadian innovation, with federal government incentives supporting the commercialisation of innovation from the lab by increasing its contribution to the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program by an additional $110 million each year.  Furthermore, the Canadian federal Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program is central in supporting R&D in Canada. As a world leader in health and life sciences, Canada is home to some of the top biotechnology research facilities in the world, which rely on government funding to alleviate the costs of research. In 2010, $768 million was spent on R&D by pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers, and another $414 million on R&D relating to navigational, measuring, medical and control instruments. Such research was supported by the Canadian government who had contributed $3.47 billion between 2010 and 2011 to support innovative companies through the SR&ED program.

With so much potential innovation on the horizon, global competition is increasing the need to continue investing in research. As such, biotechnology companies conducting R&D in Canada are strongly encouraged to leverage federal and municipal incentives like the SR&ED tax credit to reinvest funds back into research and commercialization which otherwise may not be affordable, allowing them to get ahead of the competition.   

Read more about SR&ED in the biotechnology sector.

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