By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a CRS report, updated on September 19, 2022, entitled The Bioeconomy: A Primer. The report provides an overview of the bioeconomy, details the efforts of the United States and other selected nations pertaining to the bioeconomy, and offers policy considerations for strengthening the role of the United States in the global bioeconomy. The report does not examine the policies and programs of individual sectors that contribute to the bioeconomy (e.g., biofuels, biomanufacturing, pharmaceuticals, or agriculture), but instead discusses the bioeconomy from a macro level perspective.
According to the report, issues for consideration regarding advancement of the U.S. bioeconomy that could be pursued by Congress include:
- Development and Implementation of a National Strategy: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and others have recommended that the federal government develop and regularly update a national bioeconomy strategy. As reported in our September 13, 2022, blog item, on September 12, 2022, President Joseph Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14081 “to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” According to the report, the policies and activities included in the EO appear to respond to NASEM’s recommendation for a more comprehensive vision and approach to advancing the U.S. bioeconomy. If Congress is interested in further supporting the U.S. bioeconomy, it may consider codifying some of the efforts initiated under the EO or establishing an alternative high-level coordination body tasked with developing, implementing, and evaluating a comprehensive U.S. bioeconomy strategy. It could also continue to support a more decentralized framework that encourages sector specific programs and activities related to the bioeconomy. The report states that “[r]egardless of the approach, sustainment of bioeconomy policies and programs across presidential Administrations and Congresses will likely be necessary for maintaining U.S. leadership in the future bioeconomy.” The report acknowledges that ensuring long-term engagement, including the provision of sufficient resources, “is often challenging.”
- Investment in Research and Development (R&D): According to the report, many experts call for increased federal investment in R&D to maintain U.S. leadership in the bioeconomy. In general, experts highlight the life sciences, computing and information sciences, engineering, and biotechnology for increased support, and many also emphasize the convergence of such disciplines. Beyond investments in basic and applied research in areas deemed critical to advancing the bioeconomy, some call for improvements in bioeconomy-related R&D infrastructure, including biomanufacturing platforms and pilot facilities. The report states that Congress may find that a more holistic view of its investments in and oversight of biological research, infrastructure, and data is necessary. At least 25 federal agencies and departments support biological R&D, and the jurisdiction of such agencies spans multiple congressional committees, making coordination, oversight, and coherence of bioeconomy policies and investments more challenging.
- Promotion of Regional Efforts: The report states that to have ready access to biological resources (e.g., crops, forests), implementation of many aspects of the bioeconomy will occur at the regional scale and involve rural communities. According to the report, policies to encourage the development of bioeconomy clusters and regions, including resources for planning and the creation of networks that facilitate collaboration between diverse stakeholders, including firms from divergent sectors and small businesses, are common. The report notes that it is unclear if existing programs and efforts to support regional innovation and technology-based economic development, including in rural areas, are sufficient to advance the bioeconomy. Congress may examine the size, scope, effectiveness, and synergy of existing programs, in addition to creating new programs or modifying existing programs to promote regional bioeconomy efforts.
- Creating a Market for Biobased Products: The report states that an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that bioeconomy-related policies focus primarily on supply-side or technology push measures (i.e., support for R&D and demonstration efforts). According to the report, OECD emphasized the importance of public procurement in helping to create a market for biobased products and recognized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) BioPreferred Program “as the most advanced effort in this regard.” Despite the relative success of the program, NASEM identified some areas for improvement, including updating the reporting mechanisms involved in the federal procurement of biobased products, setting procurement targets, and increasing funding for the program to enable increased awareness and standardized reporting.
- Developing a Bioeconomy Workforce: According to the report, “[t]here is broad consensus that access to a skilled workforce is essential to advancing the bioeconomy,” and “it is also clear that bioeconomy education and training should be multidisciplinary in nature.” As noted by OECD, “the long-standing conundrum of multidisciplinary education is the need for both breadth and depth to graduate people with problem-solving abilities,” however. Additionally, according to OECD, the bioeconomy workforce needs more undergraduates than doctorates. The report states that Congress may examine federal investments in bioeconomy training, education, and workforce development and the progress of the federal government in attaining the goals outlined in its strategic plan on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.
- Public Engagement and Acceptance: The report states that due to the significance of public acceptance, a number of countries are pursuing public engagement and awareness activities and policies. In a 2017 study, NASEM recommended that federal agencies invest in new methods of understanding the ethical, legal, and societal implications (ELSI) of future biotechnology products. Congress may conduct additional oversight on federal efforts to enhance public awareness and acceptance of biobased products and services and may also consider the level of resources allocated toward ELSI-related research across federal agencies, as well as the coordination of such efforts.
- International Collaboration: According to the report, most bioeconomy-related policies and strategies are focused at the national level with some exceptions (e.g., the European Union (EU)). In the United States, some states, such as Maine and Michigan, have engaged in bilateral collaborations. The report states that Congress “may examine the state of international collaboration on the bioeconomy and the need for congressional direction in this regard.”
- Sustainability and Creating a Circular Economy: A number of nations, especially those in the EU, are increasingly connecting their bioeconomy strategies and policies to action plans associated with creating a more sustainable and circular economy. Many countries see a connection between the bioeconomy and a circular economy as a means to address a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Congress may consider the degree to which U.S. bioeconomy policies and activities can or should be tied to and aligned with achieving the SDGs. Additionally, while the use of waste material as a feedstock is central to a circular economy, there are often challenges to its use. Congress may examine any regulatory impediments or other barriers to creating a circular economy.
The crosscutting nature of the bioeconomy, in addition to the diversity of potential benefits associated with its growth and advancement, offer a number of reasons for increased congressional interest in bioeconomy policies. The crosscutting nature of the bioeconomy also poses potential challenges to effective policymaking, including the harmonization of policies and coherent governance. Moreover, it likely means that the growth and success of the U.S. bioeconomy will depend, in part, on effective public-private partnerships in research, innovation, education, and workforce development. Transitioning to a biobased economy would take sustained commitment, including balancing short-term actions and long-term planning, removing barriers to such a transition, and creating the opportunity for radical innovation. Congress may decide there is no need to reorganize or group together federal activities, including some long-standing efforts, under a bioeconomy framework. It may decide to pursue bioeconomy-related policies through new or existing sector-specific focused efforts, or it may decide current policies and activities are sufficient. Regardless, other countries are adopting policies and strategies to advance their bioeconomies. Such efforts have the potential to challenge U.S. leadership in biotechnology and other bioeconomy-related sectors that many view as critical to national security and economic competitiveness.