Biotechnology, like electricity and artificial intelligence, has the potential to usher in a general-purpose revolution in human history. Biotechnology is a multi-trillion dollar industry that spans a variety of sectors including agriculture, health, materials, and energy and offers the power to modify the very essence of life as we know it.
The upcoming period offers both significant risks and enormous opportunity to change our society at both the molecular and global levels, from pathogen risks and the security of biodata to the capacity to bioengineer answers to our most intractable problems. And the new era is starting at a time of increased rivalry between authoritarian and democratic nations that use biotechnology according to various standards and beliefs.
Thankfully, the United States, as well as its allies and partners, are ahead of the game. Pitchbook reports that the US continues to be the world’s top originator and recipient of biotech investments, with US-based companies raising $466 billion in 2022, or approximately ten times as much money as came from Chinese sources. Nearly 90% of the US capital is invested domestically, demonstrating America’s position as a center of innovation and a market for cutting-edge biotech.
In the meantime, Europe leads the globe in terms of biotech patents. In addition to outperforming the US in biotech patents linked to food, macromolecular chemistry, and environmental technology over the past five years, the continent obtained more than 40,000 patents in the health sector. The top two companies making “desktop” DNA synthesizers are French DNAScript and British Nuclera. Additionally, since 2017, the UK and Canada have created significant national biotechnology programs.
However, a more totalitarian China is determined to take the world’s top spot in biotechnology by 2035. The People’s Republic is making significant investments to solve upcoming domestic health care and demographic issues, even going so far as to weaponize biotech advancements for military benefit. Despite having significantly less overall biotech investment than the US, China today has the second-highest number of biotech firms featured in the Forbes Global 2000. In addition, China may currently be the world leader in synthetic biology and biological manufacturing research.
Since cooperation and connections between the countries’ life-science ecosystems mean that US advancements could also hasten China’s biotech development, the ramifications for US national-security concerns are extensive. For instance, the expansion of BGI Group—previously known as Beijing Genomics Institute and currently the largest genetic research institution in the world—was made possible in part by its access to US markets and intellectual property.
Achieving long-term leadership in this multipurpose technology cannot be left to chance in the context of international competition. It calls on the government to maintain its focus, increased public-private cooperation, and a readiness to place calculated bets on the future of biotechnology.
Given the special characteristics of the biotech industry, attention should be paid to areas where the US, its allies, and partners may coordinate their efforts. Biotechnology is more diffuse, accessible, and interconnected than other technologies since its constituent parts are naturally local and spread. This makes it more advantageous and risky in the context of the global tech industry’s competitiveness. In order to more closely cooperate in the face of a determined rival like China, the US and its friends and partners should take advantage of these distinctive advantages.
- First, bioresponse skills must be both local and global because biology has no national boundaries. The US and its allies and partners could enable quick local responses to biotech-related events by building a globally accessible information-sharing platform called a “Bionet” to support early-warning systems. The data streams from a Bionet might assist and feed into nations’ rapid-response biosecurity systems (referred to as “Medshield(s)”), providing capabilities like a biothreat “radar,” and quick deployment of vaccinations and medicines.
- In order to achieve and maintain leadership in any technology industry, standards-setting is essential. The US, its allies, and partners should endeavor to influence business practices and moral standards in the direction of democratic values, respect for individual rights, and the advancement of an even playing field in the economy. Additionally, they must to deny strategic competitors the chance to influence biotech standards in a way that benefits them. To create and advance shared viewpoints, this calls for coordinated and consistent interaction with the International Standards Organization, the OECD, and other pertinent multilateral organizations.
- Fourth, the US and its allies and partners must strengthen its capacity to draw in and keep top biotech talent from throughout the world, particularly China. In order to provide preference to applicants with experience in biotech, they should update and utilize pertinent employment-based, research, and investment visas. They should also promote reciprocal biotech research scholarships.
- Fifth, to enable “design anywhere, grow anywhere” network effects, protect democratic supply chains, and increase geopolitical soft power, the US and its allies and partners should establish a democratic biomanufacturing alliance. To provide common access to an interface for local biomanufacturing capabilities, the US should create data-sharing agreements within existing and future alliance institutions.
- Last but not least, a foundation for international cooperation in biotechnology must be built. Biotech advancements require cooperation and collaboration, sometimes even amongst rivals. The US government should determine whether and where there are chances for cooperation on furthering global public goods that may be worth the attendant risks to democratic values, and should publicly signal those opportunities to the US private sector as well as to its allies and partners.
Especially in an era of global rivalry with authoritarian nations, harnessing the power of biotechnology requires the US and its allies and partners to collaborate in order to create a unified vision that puts democratic ideals front and center. An excellent place to start is with the SCSP Biotech Plan.