The promise of the bioeconomy is massive and fast-growing—offering new jobs, enhanced supply chains, novel technologies, and sustainable bioproducts valued at a projected $4 trillion over the next 16 years. Although the United States has been a global leader, advancements in the bioeconomy—whether it’s investing in specialized infrastructural hardware or building a multidisciplinary STEM workforce—are subject to public trust. In fact, public trust is the key to unlocking the full potential of the bioeconomy, and without it, the United States may fall short of long-term economic goals and even fall behind peer nations as a bioeconomy leader. Recent failures of the federal regulatory system for biotechnology threaten public trust, and recent regulations have been criticized for their lack of transparency. As a result, cross-sector efforts aim not just to reimagine the bioeconomy but to create a coordinated regulatory system for it. Burdened by decreasing public trust in the federal government, even the most coordinated regulatory systems will fail to boost the bioeconomy if they cannot instill public trust.
In response, the Biden-Harris Administration should direct a Bioeconomy Initiative Coordination Office (BICO) to establish a public engagement mechanism parallel with the biotechnology regulatory system. Citizen engagement and transparency are key to building public trust, yet current public engagement mechanisms cannot convey trust to a public skeptical of a biotechnology’s rewards in light of perceived risks. Bioeconomy coordination efforts should therefore prioritize public trust by adopting a new public-facing biotechnology evaluation program that collects data from nontraditional audiences via participatory technology assessments (pTA) and Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA/MCDM) and provides insight that addresses limitations. In accordance with the CHIPS and Science Act, the public engagement program will provide a mechanism for a BICO to build public trust while advancing the bioeconomy.
The public engagement program will serve as a decision-making resource for the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology (CFRB) and a data repository for evaluating public acceptance in the present and future bioeconomy.
Challenge and Opportunity
While policymakers have been addressing the challenge of sharing regulatory space among the three key agencies—Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and USDA—transparency and public trust remain challenges for federal agencies, small to midsize developers, and even the public at large. The government plays a vital role in the regulatory process by providing guidelines that govern the interactions between the developers and consumers of biotechnology. For over 30 years, product developers have depended on strategic alliances between product developers and the government to ensure the market success of biotechnology. The marketplace and regulatory oversight are tightly linked, and their impacts on public confidence in the bioeconomy cannot be separated.
When it comes to a consumer’s purchase of a biotechnology product, the pivotal factor is often not price but trust. In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released recommendations on aligning public values with gene drive research. The report revealed that public engagement that promotes a “bi-directional exchange of information and perspectives” can increase public trust. Moreover, a 2022 report on Gene Drives in Agriculture highlights the importance of considering public perception and acceptance in risk-based decision-making.
The CHIPS and Science Act provides an opportunity to address transparency and public trust within the federal regulatory system for biotechnology by directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to establish a Coordination Office for the National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative. The coordination office (i.e., BICO) will serve as a point of contact for cross-sector engagement and create a junction for the exchange of technical and programmatic information. Additionally, the office will conduct public outreach and produce recommendations for strengthening the bioeconomy.
This policy window presents a novel opportunity to create a regulatory system for the bioeconomy that also encompasses the voice of the general public. History of requests for information, public hearings, and cross-sector partnerships demonstrates the public’s capacity—or at least specific subsets of experts therein—to fill gaps, oversights, and ambiguities within biotechnology regulations.
While expert opinion is essential for developing regulation, so too are the opinions of the general public. Historically, discussions about values, sentiments, and opinions on biotechnology have been dominated by technical experts (for example, through debates on product vs. process, genetically engineered vs. genetically modified organisms, and perceived safety). Biotechnology discourse has primarily been restricted to these traditional, technical audiences, and as a result, public calls to address concerns about biotechnology are drowned out by expert opinions. We need a mechanism for public engagement that prioritizes collecting data from nontraditional audiences. This will ensure sustainable and responsible advancements in the bioeconomy.
If we want to establish a bioeconomy that increases national competitiveness, then we need to increase the participation of nontraditional audiences. Although some public concerns are unlikely to be allayed through policy change (e.g., addressing calls for a ban on genetically engineered or modified products), a public engagement program could identify the underlying issue(s) for these concerns. This would enable the adoption of comprehensive strategies that increase public trust, further sustaining the bioeconomy.
Research shows that public comment and notice periods are less likely to hear from nontraditional audiences—that is, members of underserved communities, workers, smaller market entities, and new firms. Despite the statutory and capacity-based obstacles federal agencies face in increasing public participation, the Executive Office of the President seeks to broaden public participation and community engagement in the federal regulatory process. Public engagement programs provide a platform to interact with interested parties that represent a wide range of perspectives. Thus, information gathered from public engagement could inform future proposed updates to the CFRB and the regulatory pathways for new products. In this way, the public opinions and sentiments can be incorporated into a translational governance framework to bring translational value to the bioeconomy. Since increasing public trust is complementary to advancing the bioeconomy, there is a translational value in strategically integrating a collective perception of risk and safety into future biotechnology regulation. In this case, translational governance allows for regulation that is informed by science and is responsive to the values of citizens, effectively introducing a policy lever that improves the adoption of, and investment in, the U.S. bioeconomy.
The future of biotechnology regulation is an emerging innovative ecosystem. The path to accomplishing economic goals within this ecosystem requires a new public-facing engagement mechanism framework that satisfies congressional directives and advances the bioeconomy. This framework provides a BICO with the scaffolding necessary to create an infrastructure that invites public input and community reflection and the potential to decrease the number of biotechnologies that fail to reach the market. The proposed public engagement mechanism will work alongside the current regulatory system for biotechnology to enhance public trust, improve interagency coordination, and strengthen the bioeconomy.
Plan of Action
To reach our national bioeconomic policy goals, the BICO should use a public engagement program to solicit perspectives and develop an understanding of non-economic values, such as deeply held beliefs about the relationship between humans and the environment or personal or cultural perspectives related to specific biotechnologies. The BICO should devote $10 million over five years to public engagement programs and advisory board activities that (a) report to the BICO but are carried out through external partnerships; (b) provide meaningful social data for biotechnology regulation while running parallel to the CFRB regulatory system; and (c) produce a repository of public acceptance data for horizon scanning. These programs will inform regulatory decision-making, increase public trust, and achieve the congressional directives outlined in Sec. 10402 of the CHIPS & Science Act.
Recommendation 1. Establish a Bioeconomy Initiative Coordination Office (BICO) as a home office for interagency coordination.
The BICO should be housed within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The creation of a BICO is in alignment with the mandates of Executive Order (EO) 14081, Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure Bioeconomy, and the statutory authority granted to the OSTP through the CHIPS and Science Act.
Congress should allocate $2 million annually for five years to the BICO to carry out a public engagement program and advisory board activities in coordination with the EPA, FDA, and USDA.
The public engagement program would be housed within the BICO as a public-facing data-generating mechanism that parallels the current federal regulatory system for biotechnology.
The bioeconomy cuts across sectors (e.g., agriculture, health, materials, energy) and actively creates new connections and opportunities for national competitiveness. A thriving bioeconomy must ensure regulatory policy coherence and alignment among these sectors, and the BICO should be able to comprehensively integrate information from multiple sectors into a strategy that increases public awareness and acceptance of bioeconomy-related products and services. Public engagement should be used to build a data ecosystem of values related to biotechnologies that advance the bioeconomy.
Recommendation 2. Establish a process for public engagement and produce a large repository of public acceptance data.
Public acceptance data will be collected alongside the “biological data ecosystem,” as referenced by the Biden Administration in EO 14081, that advances innovation in the bioeconomy. To provide an expert element to the public engagement process, an advisory board should be involved in translating public acceptance data (opinions on how biotechnologies align with values) into policy suggestions and recommendations for regulatory agencies. The advisory board should be a formal entity recognizable under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It should be diverse but not so large that it becomes inefficient in fulfilling its mandate. Striking a balance between compositional diversity and operational efficiency is critical to ensuring the board provides valuable insights and recommendations to the BICO. The advisory board should consist of up to 25 members, reflect NSF data on diversity and STEM, and include a diverse range of citizens, from everyday consumers (such as parents, young adults, and patients from different ethnic backgrounds) to specialists in various disciplines (such as biologists, philosophers, hair stylists, sanitation workers, social workers, and dietitians). To promote transparency and increase public trust, data will be subject to FACA and the FOIA regulations, and advisory board meetings must be accessible to the public and their details must be published in the Federal Register. Additionally, management and applications of any data collected should employ CARE (Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, Ethics) Principles for Indigenous Data Governance, which complement FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) Principles. Adopting CARE brings a people and purpose orientation to data governance and is rooted in Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty.
The BICO can look to the National Science and Technology Council’s published requests for information (RFI) and public meetings as a model for public engagement. BICO should work with an inclusive network of external partners to design workshops for collecting public acceptance data. Using participatory technology assessments (pTA) methods, the BICO will fund public engagement activities such as open-framing focus groups, workshops, and forums that prioritize input from nontraditional public audiences. The BICO office should use pre-submission data, past technologies, near-term biotechnologies, and, where helpful, imaginative scenarios to produce case studies to engage with these audiences. Public engagement should be hosted by external grantees who maintain a wide-ranging network of interdisciplinary specialists and interested citizens to facilitate activities.
Qualitative and quantitative data will be used to reveal themes, public values, and rationales, which will aid product developers and others in the bioeconomy as they decide on new directions and potential products. This process will also serve as the primary data source for the public acceptance data repository. Evolving risk pathways are a considerable concern for any regulatory system, especially one tasked with regulating biotechnologies. How risks are managed is subject to many factors (history, knowledge, experience product) and has a lasting impact on public trust. Advancing the bioeconomy requires a transparent decision-making process that integrates public input and allows society to redefine risks and safety as a collective. Public acceptance data should inform an understanding of values, risks, and safety and improve horizon-scanning capabilities.
As the use of biotechnology continues to expand, policymakers must remain adaptive in their regulatory approach to ensure that public trust is acquired and maintained. Recent federal action to boost the bioeconomy provides an opportunity for policymakers to expand public engagement and improve public acceptance of biotechnology. By centralizing coordination and integrating public input, policymakers can create a responsive regulatory convention that advances the bioeconomy while also building public trust. To achieve this, the public engagement program will combine elements of community-based participatory research, value-based assessments, pTA, and CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance. This approach will create a translational mechanism that improves interagency coordination and builds public trust. As the government works to create a regulatory framework for the bioeconomy, the need for public participation will only increase. By leveraging the expertise and perspectives of a diverse range of interested parties, policymakers can ensure that the regulatory framework is aligned with public values and concerns while promoting innovation and progress in the U.S. bioeconomy.
Translational governance focuses on expediting the implementation of regulations to safeguard human health and the environment while simultaneously encouraging innovation. This approach involves integrating non-economic values into decision-making processes to enhance scientific and statutory criteria of risk and safety by considering public perceptions of risk and safety. Essentially, it is the policy and regulatory equivalent of translational research, which strives to bring healthcare discoveries to market swiftly and safely.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should use translational governance through public engagement as a backbone of the National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative. Following the designation of an interagency committee by the OSTP—and once established under the scope of direction outlined in Sec. 10403 of the CHIPS and Science Act—the Initiative Coordination Office should use a public engagement program to support the following National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative congressional directives (Sec. 10402):
- 1) Supporting social and behavioral sciences and economics research that advances the field of engineering biology and contributes to the development and public understanding of new products, processes, and technologies.
- 2) Improving the understanding of engineering biology of the scientific and lay public and supporting greater evidence-based public discourse about its benefits and risks.
- 3) Supporting research relating to the risks and benefits of engineering biology, including under subsection d: Ensuring, through the agencies and departments that participate in the Initiative, that public input and outreach are integrated into the Initiative by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions through mechanisms such as workshops, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate].
- 4) Expanding the number of researchers, educators, and students and a retooled workforce with engineering biology training, including from traditionally underrepresented and underserved populations.
- 5) Accelerating the translation and commercialization of engineering biology and biomanufacturing research and development by the private sector.
- 6) Improving the interagency planning and coordination of federal government activities related to engineering biology.
In 1986, the newly issued regulatory system for biotechnology products faced significant statutory challenges in establishing the jurisdiction of the three key regulatory agencies (EPA, FDA, and USDA). In those early days, agency coordination allowed for the successful regulation of products that had shared jurisdiction. For example, one agency would regulate the plant in the field (USDA), and another would regulate the feed or food produced by the plant (FDA/DHHS). However, as the biotechnology product landscape has advanced, so has the complexity of agency coordination. For example, at the time of their commercialization, plants that were modified to exhibit pesticidal traits, specific microbial products, and certain genetically modified organisms cut across product use-specific regulations that were organized according to agency (i.e., field plants, food, pesticides). In response, the three key agencies have traditionally implemented their own rules and regulations (e.g., EPA’s Generally Recognized as Safe, USDA’s Am I Regulated?, USDA SECURE Rule). While such policy action is under their statutory authorities, it has resulted in policy resistance, reinforcing the confusion and lack of transparency within the regulatory process.
Since its formal debut on June 26, 1986, the CFRB has undergone two major updates, in 1992 and 2017. Additionally, the CFRB has been subject to multiple memorandums of understanding as well as two executive orders across two consecutive administrations (Trump and Biden). With the arrival of The CHIPS and Science Act (2022) and Executive Order 14081, the CFRB will likely undertake one of its most extensive updates—modernization for the bioeconomy.
According to the EPA, when the CFRB was issued in 1986, the expectation was that the framework would respond to the experiences of the industry and the agencies and that modifications would be accomplished through administrative or legislative actions. Moreover, upon their release of the 2017 updates to the CFRB, the Obama Administration described the CFRB as a “flexible regulatory structure that provides appropriate oversight for all products of modern biotechnology.” With this understanding, the CFRB is designed to be iterative and responsive to change. However, as this memo and other reports demonstrate, not all products of modern biotechnology are subject to appropriate oversight. The opportunity loss between addressing regulatory concerns and acquiring the regulations necessary to capitalize on the evolving biotechnology landscape fully presents a costly delay. The CFRB is falling behind biotechnology in a manner that hampers the bioeconomy—and likely—the future economy.