Congress had a lot more on its agenda than semiconductors when compiling the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The bill–law as of yesterday–puts forward an expansive framework to advance U.S. innovation broadly, including in areas that feed into a critical sector: the bioeconomy.
The U.S. bioeconomy–the part of the economy driven by the life sciences and biotech, and enabled by engineering, computing, and information science–has already produced many breakthroughs, such as mRNA vaccines that help counter the devastating impacts of COVID-19, or genetically engineered microbes that provide nutrients to crops without the pollution associated with traditional fertilizers. Valued at over $950 billion, the U.S. bioeconomy accounts for more than five percent of the U.S. gross domestic product–more than the contribution from the construction industry, and on par with the contribution of the information sector.
However, without sufficient support from and coordination of federal resources, the U.S. bioeconomy risks ceding ground to competitors that are implementing cohesive strategies to advance their bioeconomies. For example, China aims to dominate the 21st century bioeconomy and has prioritized growth of its bioeconomy in its five-year plans. From 2016 to July 2021, the market value of publicly listed biopharmaceutical innovators from China increased approximately 127-fold across several major stock exchanges, to more than $380 billion, with biotechnology companies accounting for more than 47 percent of that valuation.
To improve the likelihood that the U.S. advances its leadership of the bioeconomy and continues to reap the bulk of the bioeconomy’s economic, national security, and societal benefits, key provisions in the new law are intended to ensure a strong U.S. bio-workforce and the execution of leading-edge bioinnovation in America.
There’s quite a list of provisions in the CHIPS and Science Act relevant to promoting the U.S. bioeconomy. Some of the substantial ones that jumped off the page are presented below.
|Executive branch requirement in the CHIPS and Science Act||Potential Impact|
|Create a mechanism to (i) coordinate the use of federal resources to support the bioeconomy’s R&D and diverse workforce needs, and (ii) engage in planning and goal-setting, requiring a strategy to be produced one year after the bill is enacted, and be updated every five years thereafter.||A more focused and well-resourced federal approach to the development of the U.S. bioeconomy.|
|Promote scale-up of laboratory research underpinning the bioeconomy by supporting a network of testbeds based on open standards, interfaces, and processes, including by repurposing or retooling existing facilities like industrial sites.||Reduce costs associated with technology development and increase the frequency at which initial findings are advanced to product commercialization.|
|Devise robust processes for measuring important economic outputs, benefits, and aspects of the bioeconomy.||Make it more possible to set specific goals for the U.S. bioeconomy and measure progress against those goals.|
|Integrate ethical, legal, environmental, safety, security, and other societal issues into decision-making on policies impacting the bioeconomy, including public perspectives, by convening workshops, consensus conferences, and educational events.||As bioeconomy products become more advanced and touch more and more parts of our lives, the benefits are to be maximized and the risks minimized, and an ongoing dialogue would be inclusive of the non-specialist public.|
|Include bioeconomy-relevant disciplines like biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology as a focus area for funding by the National Science Foundation’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships.||Support, for example, the translation of fundamental research results into commercial products, establish research and technology development partnerships, or promote workforce development in use-inspired and translational research.|
|Craft a national genomic sequencing strategy to take advantage of the country’s plant, animal, and microbe biodiversity.||Having a plan to decipher the DNA sequences of more and more organisms’ genomes would provide researchers with more “biological parts” to use in the design of novel biotechnologies.|
Opportunities to take action to shape the new bioeconomy policy landscape
Now that the CHIPS and Science Act is law, how might the community with a stake in the bioeconomy continue to work to shape the policy landscape?
For one, while the new law mandates actions to support the bioeconomy, the appropriation of funding to support the agencies in fiscal year 2023 has stalled so far. Congress should finish the job and provide funding, and further advocacy before Congress to press for the appropriations process to be completed may be warranted.
Furthermore, the interagency committee that will coordinate much of this work will be composed of many federal agencies, and it will be important for all the right voices to be at the table. That should include agency personnel who work to support fundamental research, experimental development, commercialization, and equity, ethical, legal, environmental, safety, security, and social issues. In addition, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will select a co-chairperson from among the members of the interagency committee. This all presents an opportunity for the community to connect with OSTP to encourage the right agencies to serve on the committee, and to serve as co-chair.
An office established by the President will serve as the point of contact on federal activities related to the bioeconomy for government organizations, academia, industry, professional societies, State governments, interested citizen groups, and others to exchange technical and programmatic information. Once up and running, this office will be the place to go to discuss R&D, commercialization, social issues, and more. Notably, while this office will, in part, support the interagency committee and oversee the coordination of much of this work, the CHIPS and Science Act does not specify where the office should be housed within the federal government, providing another opportunity for the community to engage with policymakers to press for the most effective positioning of the office.
There will also be opportunities to engage with the National Academies, which were charged, under National Science Foundation contract, to “conduct a review, and make recommendations with respect to, the ethical, legal, environmental, safety, security, and other appropriate societal issues related to” R&D in areas that undergird the bioeconomy. This might involve making comments during study committee meetings’ open sessions, submitting written comments in response to requests, or communicating with the members who are selected to make up the committee. The National Academies report is due to Congress within two years, and is also likely to be influential with officials in the executive branch.
A call to action–we want to hear from you!
Provisions relevant to the bioeconomy are written throughout the CHIPS and Science Act. If you are interested in what else is included, you can review some summary materials or read pages 625-650 of the bill itself (Title IV–Bioeconomy Research and Development), and do some keyword searching on terms like “biomanufacturing,” “genomics,” “biological,” “microbial,” and so on to find other related provisions. And if you’d like, let us know what stands out to you, or how you might take action to impact the new policy landscape, by submitting your thoughts via this form. We would be happy to connect with you if there are opportunities to develop your ideas and engage with policymakers.
Now is a moment of significant opportunity to engage with federal officials implementing the new federal bioeconomy strategy, and we should seize it.