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Dean's Blog: Mason’s Role in the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative

On Monday, September 12, President Biden released his Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy.

He described his Administration’s intent “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.”

Core elements of the initiative “and its outcomes are principles of equity, ethics, safety, and security that enable access to technologies, processes, and products in a manner that benefits all Americans and the global community and that maintains United States technological leadership and economic competitiveness.”

The upcoming opportunities intersect with many scientific focus areas across our college and incorporates our key values surrounding Access, Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (AJEDI). As such, we endeavor to fully engage and participate where possible, adding scientific value and diverse perspectives to achieve a shared vision of a leading and thriving American Bioeconomy.  

I’ll breakdown a few elements of the Executive Order to get you thinking about how our research, classwork, outreach, and partnerships might fit with this initiative.

Although this will certainly impact our students in the Biology Department, our largest major in the Mason’s College of Science, and our School of Systems Biology, based on the broad scope and impact of the initiative, many of our other scientists across the college’s analytics driven and climate- and sustainability-focused programs and research centers will also find the opportunities and challenges of interest.

The Executive Order states, “the term ‘life sciences’ means all sciences that study or use living organisms, viruses, or their products, including all disciplines of biology and all applications of the biological sciences (including biotechnology, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, and pharmaceutical and biomedical research and techniques), but excluding scientific studies associated with radioactive materials or toxic chemicals that are not of biological origin or synthetic analogues of toxins.”

How does it define biotechnology and how can our scientists and future scientists better understand the challenges and opportunities outlined in the Executive Order?

“Biotechnology harnesses the power of biology to create new services and products, which provide opportunities to grow the United States economy and workforce and improve the quality of our lives and the environment.  The economic activity derived from biotechnology and biomanufacturing is referred to as “the bioeconomy.”  The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vital role of biotechnology and biomanufacturing in developing and producing life-saving diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines that protect Americans and the world.  Although the power of these technologies is most vivid at the moment in the context of human health, biotechnology and biomanufacturing can also be used to achieve our climate and energy goals, improve food security and sustainability, secure our supply chains, and grow the economy across all of America.”

The directive further suggests, “For biotechnology and biomanufacturing to help us achieve our societal goals, the United States needs to invest in foundational scientific capabilities.  We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale‑up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.”

How does it define R&D?

“The term “key R&D areas” includes fundamental R&D of emerging biotechnologies, including engineering biology; predictive engineering of complex biological systems, including the designing, building, testing, and modeling of entire living cells, cell components, or cellular systems; quantitative and theory-driven multi-disciplinary research to maximize convergence with other enabling technologies; and regulatory science, including the development of new information, criteria, tools, models, and approaches to inform and assist regulatory decision making. These R&D priorities should be coupled with advances in predictive modeling, data analytics, artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, high-performance and other advanced computing systems, metrology and data-driven standards, and other non-life science enabling technologies.”

Why am I excited about this?

There’s something to be said for being at the right place at the right time.

Here are some reasons why Mason Science is well positioned for such an effort. Let’s first discuss the AJEDI lens we overlay on our research and academic efforts. U.S. News and World Report recently named George Mason University a top 10 university for diversity, innovation, and cybersecurity education in the U.S. Diverse perspectives are already built into our scientific community.

Along with Mason’s stature as an R-1 university, many of our scientists lead or actively participate in global collaborations in biological scientific advances including antimicrobial and viral capabilities, vaccine development, biothreat research, agricultural and climate analysis and optimization, and urban science and data analysis. For years, we’ve successfully researched such threats and identified opportunities within Mason’s Biomedical Research Laboratory (only one of a dozen in the U.S.). As such, Mason Science research scientists and academic programs uniquely position us to impact these White House described biotechnology efforts.

The document outlines specific timelines to move the Initiative forward. We will actively engage across Mason and our scientific community to share ideas, propose innovative research opportunities, and look forward to training the diverse workforce to help achieve this vision of a thriving American Bioeconomy.