UK government lays out national vision for engineering biology industry

Article by Kerry Hebden

THE UK government has said it will invest £2bn (US$2.5bn) over the next ten years in engineering biology disciplines as part of a national vision to develop and commercialise opportunities within the sector. Public investment towards world-class research and development on the critical challenges faced in the field will also be targeted, ministers said. However, some experts say that while the announcement is encouraging, the vision lacks quantitative measures, and the funding is on par with what is already spent by government. 

The vision builds on a call for evidence issued to the engineering biology community in July, after the government identified the field as one of five critical areas, along with quantum technologies, AI, semiconductors and future telecommunications, that have the potential to grow at a pace.  

Based on the feedback, the government said it will plough money into key areas that will help generate trillions of pounds in economic opportunities. These include infrastructure to boost innovation and scale it up; regulation to help engineering biology-derived products reach market; data harmonisation; and the growth and retention of a diverse talent pool. 

In a speech outlining the terms of the plan Andrew Griffith, minister of state for science, research and innovation, praised the sector, saying that in every corner of the country, the brightest innovators were pioneering new solutions across industries that will make future generations healthier, more prosperous, and live more sustainably. 

“It was this country that produced the minds who discerned the theory of evolution, discovered the structure of DNA, and invented how to read its sequence,” Griffith said. 

Government defines engineering biology as the design, scaling and commercialisation of biology-derived products and services that can transform sectors or produce existing products more sustainably. It draws on the tools of synthetic biology, and is underpinned heavily by DNA and its applications, but its reach is far and wide.  

From medical therapies, crop varieties and eco-friendly fuels to alternative proteins and sustainable chemicals, engineering biology has the potential to revolutionise thousands of products. But like other transformative industries, competition is growing.  

Last year, President Biden pledged US$2bn to launch a US biomanufacturing initiative, while Germany, France, Japan, Singapore, Israel, and Denmark are also making engineering biology a strategic priority. China is ahead of the game, and has already invested US$3.8bn in biotechnology R&D between 2008–2020. 

As part of its vision, the government said it is also setting up a new Engineering Biology Steering Group, that will consolidate advice, and bring together the current leaders of the academic, start-up and industry community. “Its membership will reflect the geographic spread of UK strengths and opportunities in engineering biology, and the diverse mix of the UK sector’s participants,” the government said, adding that it will sit alongside the Biosecurity Leadership Council. 

Ian Shott, executive chairman, and majority owner of engineering biology company Ingenza, worked on the vision with the Council for Science and Technology, the body which advises the prime minister on strategic science and technology issues. He said that although the prospect of a steering group is important, it needs to be properly constituted, and populated with business and investment leaders, academia, and government. “Similarly, for the steering group to be effective, then shared authority on the guidelines is needed across multiple departments, including DSIT, DEFRA, the business department, the treasury, etc,” he said. 

Taken as a whole, Shott thought the government's national vision was a good one, but that it was “very much about narrative” and lacked quantifiable forward contributions. “What government needs to do now, is to build on the strong foundations the sector already has as a result of substantial government investment over the previous 15 years, by providing details on how it proposes to carry out its vision,” he said. “Such as how a broad basis of technical skills and training will be implemented, and how additional investment in infrastructure will be funded.” 

He suggested government could stimulate and accelerate business investment and growth, by considering upfront funding like extending the R&D tax credit system, building further on tax relief for investments, and considering low-cost loans closer to the rate the government borrows than other commercial rates.  

He made it clear that an increase in spending was the way forward. “£2bn over ten years is no more than current government commitments,” he said. “Having worked in the industry for four decades and having lived and worked in countries such as the US, Switzerland, and France, it is very apparent that business investment in the UK is one of the weakest of the major economies on the global level. Business investment depends on a stable and supportive government environment.” 

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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