The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States recently approved the sale of Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, California to China-based BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute). Some decried the committee’s investigation as the overarching meddling of government in business affairs while others hailed the committee’s efforts as an important measure necessary to protect national security. In fact, both sides were right.
Attempts to regulate or restrict the export of American biotechnology are likely to backfire and hurt American competitiveness. We’ve seen this pattern before. Efforts by the US government to ban the export of encryption technologies during the 1990’s did little to prevent their use around the world. In fact, just the opposite occurred, it spawned the development of foreign firms in the encryption space and the launch of competing products. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research, delaying important and potentially life-saving research into illnesses ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s disease. The result: the US fell behind in this area and some of our best scientists went overseas to continue their research unfettered by American political affairs. Regulating dynamic, fast-changing technologies is difficult.
This said, newly emerging technologies ranging from robotics to nanotechnology do raise significant national security concerns, as do the advances in genetics and synthetic biology. Were we to ignore these concerns, we would do so at our own peril. Whether or not we realize it, we are at the dawn of a new information revolution. This time however, the information stored and processed won’t be with 1′s and 0′s on silicon chips, but rather encoded in the operating system of life itself: DNA. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology empowers people to alter the molecular mechanisms of cells and viruses, agents that can replicate and spread, potentially beyond human control. This shouldn’t just be a national security concern. It should be a global security concern.
Though we are in the earliest days of developing the emerging field of synthetic biology, in the coming years, it promises to have massive impact on everything from business to medicine and energy to warfare. The Chinese government and BGI clearly understand this and are pouring tremendous resources into research and development of these biotechnologies. That US Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, was the only member of Congress known to have publicly expressed concern about BGI’s purchase of Complete Genomics is not just startling. It is also emblematic of how far the rest of Congress is from understanding how quickly the biotech revolution will be upon us and how dramatically it will impact all facets of our world.
For America to remain competitive, the appropriate public policy response is to ban neither research nor international trade, but rather to invest heavily in both. The United States government, through its public funding of DARPA, was responsible for the creation of the Internet and our nation reaped untold wealth as the progenitor of the information revolution. Yet the economic gains realized from the Internet may be dwarfed by coming boom in genetics and biotechnology. What role the United States will play in that brave new world is yet unanswered. In the meantime, it is worth studying the progress being undertaken by other nations, including China, and by companies such as BGI, not as a means of inhibiting their scientific progress, but as a catalyst for driving our own.
[Top image credit: Mopic/Shutterstock]