Biodefense Net Assessment: Causes and Consequences of Bioeconomic Proliferation

Revenues from biotechnology continue to grow rapidly around the world.  For several years I have been trying to assess these revenues, in part as a proxy metric for technological capabilities.  A couple of years ago, I received a commission from the U.S. government to explore this topic for the 2012 Biodefense Net Assessment (BNA).  I recently received approval to release the resulting report, which carries the title "Causes and Consequences of Bioeconomic Proliferation: Implications for U.S. Physical and Economic Security" (PDF).  As far as I am aware, this is the first publicly-released document from the BNA. 

Carlson_BNA_cover.pngThere is a relatively small amount of information available about the BNA available on the web. The BNA is a quadrennial review required under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 (HSPD-10): "These assessments are meant to provide senior level decision makers with fresh, non-consensus, perspectives on key issues underlying the Nation's biodefense."  The first few pages of the report provide more information about the origin and use of the BNA.

My own motivation for doing this work is to better understand what is going on in the world.  When it comes to developing policy to improve security and safety, I unapologetically insist that data drive policy.  There are far too many people who develop policy in spite of data rather than in light of data.  That leads to messy thinking and demonstrably makes us less safe and less secure.  All that said, one conclusion from my work on this report is that nobody is doing a very good job of gathering and publishing the data necessary to understand the rapid technical and economic development of biotechnology around the world.

One final thought about the report: this particular document was funded by the U.S. government, and I was given a particular set of charges in the task (see pg iii-iv); the report is therefore tilted toward U.S. security concerns.  However, the basic analyses and conclusions are relevant to developing policy in any country, and for that matter to developing strategy for many private companies and other organizations.  I will continue work on this story, and look forward to engaging people around the globe in better understanding how our world is changing.

Here is the "Background" section of the report.  Please note that the report is now a few years old, and the bioeconomy has continued to grow rapidly around the world.

Biotechnology is becoming increasingly de-skilled and less expensive, leading to a proliferation of localized innovation around the world. In addition to major investments by growing economic powerhouses India and China, other developing countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Brazil are equally intent on developing domestic biotech research and development capabilities. All of these countries are interested initially in producing drugs for diseases that predominantly affect their citizens, a project that requires a particular infrastructure and set of skills. Yet those same skills can be used to develop other applications, from fuels and materials to weapons, all of which can serve as a lever to increase power and presence on the world stage, thereby enabling developing countries to become rivals to the US both regionally and globally.

Economic demand will serve as a driver for ever greater proliferation of biotechnology. Today, in the US, revenues from genetically modified systems contribute the equivalent of almost 2% of GDP, and are growing in the range of 15 to 20% per year. China, among other countries, is not far behind and is following explicit government policy to substantially increase its independent, domestic development of new biological technologies to address such diverse concerns as healthcare, biomass production, and biomanufacturing. As is already the case in many other industries, trade between developing nations in biotech may soon exceed trade with the US. Therefore, among the challenges the US is likely to face in this environment is that the flow of technology, ideas, and skills may bypass US soil. Moreover, because skills and instrumentation are widely available, biotechnological development is possible in unconventional settings outside of universities and corporate laboratories. The resulting profusion of localized and distributed innovation is likely to provide a wide variety of challenges to US security, from economic competition, to intelligence gathering, to the production of new bio-threats.