This September, the Biden administration issued an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. For Stanford scholars Megan Palmer and Drew Endy, this was a thrilling milestone in a decades long effort to facilitate conversations and action between stakeholders across industry, academic, government and civil society working in biotechnology and biomanufacturing.
Both were participants at the 2019 White House Summit on the American Bioeconomy, where they helped facilitate sessions and lay the groundwork for further action. On September 14, that work came to fruition as Dr. Palmer returned to Washington D.C. to participate in another White House summit launching the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative for a Safe, Secure and Resilient American Bioeconomy, which will bolster and coordinate investments in biotechnology across the federal government. The White House also announced $2 billion dollars of investment into bioeconomy research, development, and infrastructure.
To highlight these importance developments, we’ve asked Palmer and Endy to explain more about the bioeconomy and the exciting new potential — and challenges — the Biden administration’s new order offers to researchers.
Let’s start with some definitions: Can you explain what the “bioeconomy” is?
The bioeconomy refers broadly to products or services made via biology. This includes food, fuels, medicines, clothing, and much more. Biotechnology, first enabled via genetic engineering and maturing further via synthetic biology, is what powers a modern bioeconomy. By recent estimates, 5% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now produced by biotechnology, with foods, industrial materials, and medicines together accounting for about $1 trillion of annual economic activity.
How is the bioeconomy important to national security and the United States’ ability to remain strategically competitive on the international stage?
The bioeconomy provides essential foundations for secure, sustainable, and resilient societies.
We can use the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. Over the last two years, we’ve all experienced disruptions to supply chains and seen how that can create hardships, strife, and worse. Investing in the bioeconomy is one way to create more resilience in those systems. Advanced bio-based processes can complement traditional approaches by enabling local, distributed, and resilient manufacturing.
For example, exciting experiments from some of our colleagues here at Stanford have demonstrated that we can genetically reprogram the cellular machinery of yeast to create microscopic factories that convert sugars and amino acids into plant-based drugs. With more research and investment, it’s feasible that technology like this could be used to produce medicine at a local brewery rather than sourcing an essential drug from across the world.
Beyond health and medicines, biotechnology is also giving us more strategies to contend with other extant threats to our security, like climate change. Sustainable bio-based manufacturing processes, along with clean energy options and carbon sequestration approaches to more circular bio-based economies are going to be crucial to addressing this crisis in a timely way.
President Biden has placed a priority on advancing biotechnology and biomanufacturing. Why do you think this focus on biopolicy is coming now, when they are so many other areas vying for the administration’s attention?
Even before this most recent executive order, technology and industrial policy have featured prominently in the Biden administration’s legislative aims, executive actions, and the strategies it’s outlined. And even prior to the current administration, there has been significant work building up to the moment we’re at today.
Legislation like the CHIPS + Science Act recognizes the need to improve consideration and coordination around how best to advance biotechnology capacities. Last week’s Executive Order complements these efforts and gives more urgency to developing those processes. Biotechnology capabilities are maturing rapidly and the gaps in leadership and governance of the field are becoming more obvious. It’s crucial that best practices are developed that reflect democratic values and ethics.
Whoever leads the development of the tools and infrastructure underlying biotechnology practices will also shape the standards around their uses and misuse, and whether these in turn reinforce or undermine democratic societies. It’s the onus of countries like the United States to fill that role. All of that fits into the goals the Biden administration has articulated to stregthen America’s leadership in the world.
What does a vibrant biotech/manufacturing ecosystem look like in the United States?
Biology is democracy’s natural ally. We are all made of biology, and we all live with it every single day. One of the things the White House summit helped show was how citizens everywhere are already working with biology to do many useful things, from growing green concrete for buildings and airports to engineering bones and hearts for the ill.
Bottom-up and distributed entrepreneurship that works across communities and serves many different purposes is one of the unique hallmarks and advantages of an American bioeconomy, which we’ve studied and written about before. We also need to be working closely with our allies across the world to ensure bioeconomies and the underlying biotechnologies are developed cooperatively and used for the benefit of all people and the planet.
What we hope people will understand and feel inspired by the idea that each of us has an intrinsic capacity to become a citizen of and actively participate in a more biotic future. This may feel abstract and perhaps even a bit frightening to some, but there’s so much opportunity and so much need for more innovation to realize the bioeconomic future we want to achieve.
As experts in bio policy, what are some things on your wish lists that you hope will come to light as a result of the Biden administration’s executive order?
As one wonky but amazing example, consider the requested revisions to to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and North American Product Classification System (NAPCS). NAICS and NAPCS are tools economists use to measure and understand what is contributing to our economy overall. Other technologies like electronics and semiconductors have long been accounted for, but biotechnology has been strangely missing. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a long-standing lesson in management science, and for the first time now, we should finally be able to more formally measure our bioeconomy.
It would also be great to see the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) get going in terms of standard measurements, units, and references materials needed to support scaling and equitable access to the bioeconomy. We have well-defined units for measuring the resistance of an electrical wire. But how do we measure gene expression along DNA in a cell? We need common units and references materials to support bioengineering processes that can be reliably deployed and counted on by everyone, not just experts.
Finally, it is heartening to see a leadership plan to track and coordinate the vast array of activities related to the bioeconomy across the federal government. It is vital to connect goals to promote the bioeconomy across various sectors with the goals to integrate considerations of safety, security, and equity throughout all activities.
Advances in biotechnology often come with unique ethical concerns and considerations. How can the government and research communities like Stanford ensure that new technologies coming into the field are developed and employed in a way that is both ethical and equitable?
The Executive Order and last week’s White House Summit did a fantastic job of bringing together leaders to highlight why there’s a need to build the bioeconomy and what some of the goals are in developing biotechnologies, bio-industries and bio-societies. But there’s still a lot that needs to be worked out about of how to do that in a sustainable, secure, and ethical way.
Simple but profound questions such as, “What are possible and preferred bioeconomies?” and “What would make a bioeconomy American?” still need careful attention, strong debate, and good options. The choices we make on these questions will reflect and encode our values into what others experience as they encounter the biotechnologies of the future. With so many different agencies and leadership groups being asked to come up with plans, it’s important those broad principles don’t get lost in the details.
At Stanford, we’ve been working on efforts like Bio Policy & Leadership in Society (Bio.Polis), to enable people across and beyond campus to weigh in not only on the nuts-and-bolts policy details of our plans, but also what stories and dreams that are guiding those plans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech was not, “I have an economy,” but “I have a dream.” We want to make sure we understand and account for what the dreams about an increasingly biotic future are.
These questions have led to projects designed to draw in new communities from the arts, humanities and design communities to consider what an ethical and equitable bio-future might look like. Megan helped develop Bio.Stories, a collaboration with the World Economic Forum and Faber Futures, to curate and synthesize collective stories about our changing relationships with biology, and Drew co-led the course "Inventing the Future” at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, which challenged students to imagine and compare a utopian and dystopian visions of a biotic future.
These kinds of projects encourage broader participation in anticipating how biotechnologies might touch our lives, including potential forms of harm. These efforts can in turn guide coupled innovations in policies and technologies.
Looking to the future, what are some areas of current research and development in biotech that excite you for the impacts it could have?
There’s a lot of incredible work being done right now at Stanford's Build-a-Cell group to learn how to create simple living cells from scratch. And, there are many even more exciting projects and areas of research being pursued by Stanford’s Synthetic Biology community.
Across our entire campus, we’re really trying to ask questions that require different disciplines, cultures and communities to come together to answer. In order to make the biotic future a successful reality, we need expertise from across the board to think critically and creatively about how biotechnologies are going to shape and be shaped by our societies.
Megan Palmer is Executive Director of Stanford’s Bio Policy & Leadership in Society Initiative, (Bio.Polis), a strategic initiative of the Department of Bioengineering supported by the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) and the campus-wide Ethics Society and Technology Hub. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Bioengineering and an Affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).
Drew Endy is Faculty in Bioengineering, Co-Director of Degree Programs for the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), and Core Faculty at CISAC.