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It’s the Century of Biology: Are the Candidates Listening?

Americans have come to tolerate a disconnect between political rhetoric and the reality of running the country. Sometimes, though, the space between the two does a particular disservice. Consider, for example, the universally acknowledged importance of the life sciences in the 21st century, touching everything from agriculture to health care to national security to jobs. So far in this election cycle, the only vaguely relevant recognition of the importance of leadership in biotechnology for the country’s future was a polemical and uninformative exchange on vaccination policy.

So how is the country doing in biotech investment? A fascinating and richly detailed new industry report from Jones Lang Lasalle allows us to reach two salient conclusions: first, the United States is holding its own as the global leader; and second, since the 2007 downturn, industry clusters in China, India, and Singapore have displaced traditional powers Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Spain in direct pharmaceutical investment.

This result confirms the narrative we hear in so many fields these days about the turn toward Asia, and well justifies the Obama administration’s reassertion of American interests as a Pacific power.

Digging deeper into the U.S. data, what is striking is the opportunities for development in so much of the country, which is currently dominated by a few regions at the top. According to the report’s ranking system, the top three regional biotech “clusters” are Boston, New York/New Jersey, and the Bay Area. But while it’s pretty clear that clusters in the Northeast and California dominate the biotech industry today, at the same time emerging clusters across the South and Midwest–Atlanta to Denver to Indianapolis to Houston–could have tremendous potential with the right policies and investments. As the report notes:

Some clusters, like Chicago and Houston, have very strong intellectual capacities and research institutions, but struggle to translate innovation from bench to marketplace due to lacking fiscal support or programming. While others, like Florida, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, have strong industry representation but remain challenged by fragmented framework, most notably lackluster funding from NIH and VC sources.

So policy frameworks do make a difference in regional success or failure. The online science policy journal I edit for the Center for American Progress, Science Progress, has long advocated for the value of investing in regional economic clusters as way to accelerate innovation and create jobs. Political candidates should take note that emerging clusters abroad are taking advantage of government policies that make them more competitive in high technology, especially India, China, Singapore, and Brazil. So while the last few years have shown U.S. resilience, there’s no time for complacency. In my new book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, I argue that biotechnology needs to become part of the American narrative of progress and innovation. Creating incentives and programs to help level the playing field for nascent innovation clusters across the country would make America more competitive in the face of the emerging clusters abroad.

And a candidate who addresses those regional potentials might just strike a responsive chord that translates into votes.

Science Progress Editor-In-Chief, Jonathan Moreno, in a Huffington Post cross-post.

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