February 20, 2024

Biotech Matters

A U.S. National Security Imperative

Introduction

Since January 2020, roughly 6.9 million people have died from COVID-19. In the United States alone, the pandemic cost the economy roughly $14 trillion. As grim as the numbers are, without the breakthroughs in biotechnology that enabled the COVID-19 vaccine, they could have been much worse. Operation Warp Speed showed the power of the U.S. government to direct national biotech capabilities around a shared goal—in this case, a novel vaccine. But there are many other promising applications for biotech, and America cannot afford to wait for the next pandemic before it acts to prioritize and strengthen its biotech sector.

Now more than ever, the international community needs what emerging biotechnologies promise to do—for health, climate, energy security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and more. And to meet the moment, the United States must reassert its biotech leadership, not only for its own economic and national security, but to ensure that democratic principles underpin the global biorevolution.

Biotech Matters

Biotechnology broadly refers to harnessing biological processes to develop novel goods and services, while the bioeconomy refers to the share of the economy derived from those bio-based goods and services. Biotech applications range from defensive capabilities such as enzyme sensors to detect landmines to cutting-edge sustainable manufacturing techniques and energy solutions such as biofuels. These applications can help combat climate change through bioremediation, support food and agricultural industries with crop fortification, and create life-changing and lifesaving health solutions such as the new CRISPR–enabled sickle-cell disease treatment. Emerging biotechnologies also amplify advancements in other critical tech sectors such as artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled drug discovery, DNA data storage, and molecular communication. But while they hold impressive potential, biotechnologies can also be gravely misused—from the development of next generation bioweapons to ethically fraught genetic experimentation to bio-enhanced panopticon-style surveillance.

With an estimated economic impact of roughly $4 trillion over the next two decades, leadership in the global biotech sector—whether to realize its promise or weaponize its potential—could reshape economies and underwrite future national securities. Many hoped the Biden administration’s September 2022 biotech executive order would catalyze the U.S. sector toward stronger, more affirmative global leadership, especially when followed up with the White House’s March 2023 Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing. And while the U.S. interagency has made progress in their implementation, federal momentum in biotechnology is largely eclipsed by AI.

As expert pleas to bolster U.S. bioeconomic competitiveness struggle for airtime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in an all-out sprint to surpass the United States in biotech leadership and put its own techno-authoritarian stamp on the critical emerging technology. Beijing made biotech a priority area in its “Made in China 2025” strategic plan, and has set ambitious 2035 target goals for its domestic sector. The PRC’s efforts are focused on bioengineering, and according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China now leads the United States in biological manufacturing, genome and genetic sequencing analysis, novel antibiotics and antivirals, and synthetic biology, where it currently contributes one-third of all high-impact research papers. The U.S. innovation ecosystem still leads in biotech overall, maintaining approximately 59 percent of global biotech value to China’s 11 percent in 2021. But China’s national strategy of state investment, combined with massive private investment, is chipping away at the difference—and the United States is failing to decisively respond.

Assessing the U.S. Biotech Landscape

After the biotech executive order was released, CNAS launched a Task Force on Biotechnology and American Competitiveness in November 2022. Over the past year, the CNAS Biotech Task Force has convened experts from government, industry, and academia to explore critical issues at the intersection of biotech and national security. A review of the focus and high-level conclusions of those discussions follows.

Session I: Opportunities for Biotech Leadership

Today’s biotech applications focus principally on health, agriculture, and biodefense, but the field has much greater potential. Biotech is poised to underpin the future of manufacturing (e.g., for textiles, energy alternatives, and critical defense materials), enable the restoration of polluted environments, and revolutionize information science—all with major economic and geopolitical benefits for the leading power. This is especially true for advancements in synthetic biology, genomics, and biological manufacturing—areas where China currently leads.

Session II: Obstacles to Biotech Competitiveness

The United States faces several obstacles to reasserting its biotech leadership. First, the bioeconomy’s cross-sector nature renders it difficult to measure, leading to a lack of consensus on how to define and evaluate it at the national and international levels. Without clear metrics, it is difficult to assess where the United States stands relative to its allies, partners, and adversaries in biotechnologies, as well as to evaluate the efficacy of existing policies, prioritize advancements, and measure progress.

The United States also lacks a national, affirmative strategy for biotech, as well as clear government leadership to drive the nation’s biotech interests forward. Relatedly, public distrust in the scientific community is on the rise (e.g., regarding genetically modified organisms, the COVID-19 vaccine, etc.). This distrust, coupled with critical U.S. talent gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), must be addressed to secure sustained, whole-of-nation support.

Session III: Answering the Weaponization of Emerging Biotechnologies

Biotechnology’s great promise for societal good and economic competitiveness must be balanced with its potential for misuse by bad actors. Without a strong and healthy U.S. commercial biotech sector, the United States will not have what it needs to rapidly respond to new and emerging bio-enabled threats.

The U.S. government—and specifically the Department of Defense—has historically struggled to quickly incorporate critical and emerging technologies into its workstreams. The United States must therefore reevaluate its approach to public-private partnerships in biotech, or risk failing to secure critical defensive technologies at pace with the offensive capabilities of its adversaries. In addition to ensuring that the nation can respond to such threats, the United States should also consider expanding export controls for high-risk biotechnologies, which could help mitigate the misuse of U.S.-origin biotech inputs and technologies abroad.

Session IV: A National Strategy for U.S. Biotechnology

To catalyze whole-of-nation support for the priorities in the executive order and Bold Goals, the White House must develop a strong, affirmative national strategy for U.S. biotechnological competitiveness. While the recent Bold Goals lists important priorities for the sector, U.S. policymakers and the public need a clear call to action that not only demystifies how biotechnologies already feature in their everyday lives, but what potential they hold, and what it would mean for the United States to fall behind.

Along with this strategy, the United States needs to establish clear metrics to assess bioeconomic strength, as well as more accessible, scalable innovation infrastructure for the life sciences, and stronger STEM talent pipelines that both foster domestic expertise and better leverage critical foreign talent. The United States also needs to collaborate more robustly with bio-leading allies and partners to combine relative strengths and mitigate sectoral weaknesses.

Meeting the Bio Moment

U.S. policymakers must grapple with several lingering and immediate questions if the United States is to fully realize its biotech leadership. This commentary opens a series in which CNAS Biotech Task Force experts tackle these critical issues.

  • What are the impacts of existing domestic regulations on the U.S. biotech sector? Do they effectively ensure safety and security while still enabling innovation? If not, what would an ideal regulatory framework look like?
  • How does the U.S. biological data ecosystem compare with those of its allies, partners, and adversaries? What changes, if any, should the United States make to better leverage the data it has and secure the data it needs to innovate at the leading edge?
  • What is the current state of U.S. public-private partnerships in biotech? How might they be improved to better catalyze the domestic sector and meet the needs of the nation?
  • Important as it is to mitigate the risks, there are also opportunities at the intersection of biotech and AI. What are these? How can the United States better capitalize on this potential?
  • How should the United States approach biotech cooperation with allies and partners going forward? (e.g., information sharing on emerging biotech capabilities and supply chains, talent cooperation, joint research and development projects, co-developing democratic norms and standards for emerging biotechnologies, etc.)

Failing to secure U.S. leadership in biotechnology risks ceding not only a technological and economic edge to China, but also the power to set and enforce rules of the road as these technologies become further embedded into everyday life. While strengthening and expanding U.S. bioeconomic leadership will take time, political will, and dedicated resources, the United States cannot afford to wait. China surely is not.

About the Author

Hannah Kelley is a Research Associate with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. Her work focuses on U.S. national technology strategy and international cooperation on responsible technology use. Kelley helps run the CNAS Task Force on Biotechnology and American Competitiveness.

Before joining CNAS, Kelley interned with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, where she covered the Mission’s Security Council portfolio, including sessions on nuclear nonproliferation, information and communications technologies in UN peacekeeping missions, and country-specific developments in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Yemen. Before that, Kelley interned with the International Rescue Committee (IRC Atlanta), providing direct client services to refugee and asylee families, as well as with the U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, U.S. Commercial Service (Atlanta), supporting southeastern export compliance and conducting market research.

Kelley holds an MA in international policy and a BA in international affairs from the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs.

Acknowledgments

The author is grateful to Vivek Chilukuri and Maura McCarthy for their valuable feedback and suggestions on earlier drafts of this commentary, as well as to Melody Cook and Rin Rothback for their design support.

This commentary series was made possible with general support to CNAS.

As a research and policy institution committed to the highest standards of organizational, intellectual, and personal integrity, CNAS maintains strict intellectual independence and sole editorial direction and control over its ideas, projects, publications, events, and other research activities. CNAS does not take institutional positions on policy issues, and the content of CNAS publications reflects the views of their authors alone. In keeping with its mission and values, CNAS does not engage in lobbying activity and complies fully with all applicable federal, state, and local laws. CNAS will not engage in any representational activities or advocacy on behalf of any entities or interests, and, to the extent that the Center accepts funding from non-U.S. sources, its activities will be limited to bona fide scholastic, academic, and research-related activities, consistent with applicable federal law. The Center publicly acknowledges on its website annually all donors who contribute.

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Author

  • Hannah Kelley

    Research Associate, Technology and National Security Program

    Hannah Kelley is a Research Associate with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. Her work focuses on U.S. national technology strategy and international cooper...

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