Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures

By Yanchao Li and Philip Shapira

Over a two-week period in May 2015, we undertook a series of interviews in China with scientists and entrepreneurs working in the fast growing domain of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology involves redesigning biological components and systems present in the natural world or making new ones from scratch. Champions expect synthetic biology to drive a new industrial revolution, shifting economies to greener, bio-materials and offering opportunities to develop innovative products and applications in medicine, agri-food, energy, information technology, and other fields. The UK published a pioneering Synthetic Biology Roadmap in 2012 and has funded a series of new synthetic biology research and commercialisation initiatives. In the US, the European Union, other developed countries, and now China, researchers and companies are now similarly exploring the opportunities presented by synthetic biology. China’s efforts are underpinned by its policy drive to shift from routine manufacturing to more innovative high-technology sectors and the considerable expansion in recent years in Chinese resources and capabilities for science, engineering, and innovation.

During our field research in China, we visited several key institutions undertaking synthetic biology research and commercialization in China, interviewing a range of researchers, entrepreneurs and high-level managers. China has long used a centrally managed five-year planning approach to signal science and technology priorities, fund research and training in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and universities, guide regional agencies, and support technology commercialization. These plans did not foresee the rapid recent growth of attention in other countries to synthetic biology. However, prompted in part by the fast scale-up of the UK programme, Chinese governmental sources have expanded support for synthetic biology research, including at local levels. Academicians and science and technology policy officials have prepared a Chinese roadmap that identifies strategic targets in synthetic biology over five, ten and twenty year periods. Nearer-term goals include building databases of standardized biological parts and developing computational competency for part and device design. China’s roadmap also outlines timelines for commercial and clinical applications of parts, devices, and systems developed using synthetic biology and engineering. Indeed, we observed an actively developing community of synthetic biology researchers, entrepreneurs and established companies.

We met with several key people involved in synthetic biology research in China, including at Tsinghua University in Beijing and at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Research groups in these institutions target both scientific outputs and commercialization, with close links to scientific entrepreneurs and established companies. In an incubator at Tsinghua University, we visited a start-up company that is drawing on university research to engineer polyhydroxyalkanoates (polyesters fashioned by bacterial fermentation). The company’s patented organism can be used to make biodegradable plastics using seawater (rather than more expensive freshwater). We also visited a US-owned biological research company based in eastern China that employs a labour force of Chinese scientists and technicians to provide gene synthesis, cell line development, and biological testing services and products to a worldwide customer base. The company is exploring synthetic genome design and other ways in which synthetic biology can be used to develop enhanced and new services and products.

However, systematic approaches in China to address the ethical, legal, equity, and societal implications of synthetic biology are not evident. As yet, no explicit measures to foster responsible research and innovation are embedded in Chinese initiatives to develop synthetic biology, and China has not emulated the open processes of broad consultation and public engagement seen in the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap. This is not to say there is no discussion about broader implications in China. Just before our visit, a group of Chinese scientists from Sun Yat-sen University generated worldwide controversy through their efforts to genetically modify human embryos. We were told that this work also ignited debate among scientists and policymakers in China, although without consensus as to its appropriateness and what should be done to more effectively govern biological research by Chinese researchers to address ethical and safety concerns. Debate on such topics in China has tended to be restricted to small-scale groups of academics and policymakers. Still, there are signs that issues are being discussed. A recent Xiangshan-Science academic workshop considered ethical issues and governance of converging technologies, while one of the first academic meetings in China on responsible research and innovation is being held this summer. There are also early indications of the use of China’s extensive social media platforms to highlight specific projects in synthetic biology. It remains to be seen whether and how such developments will influence the governance and trajectories of research and innovation of synthetic biology in China.

Philip Shapira is Professor of Innovation, Management and Policy at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School (MBS), The University of Manchester, UK, and is Principal Investigator for the Project on Emerging Technologies, Trajectories and Implications of Next Generation Innovation Systems Development in China and Russia (ES/J012785/1). He is also a Co-Investigator with the Manchester Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SYNBIOCHEM) (BB/M017702/1) and lead for SYNBIOCHEM’s Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) Group. Dr. Yanchao Li is a Research Associate with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and a researcher with the Project on Emerging Technologies, Trajectories and Implications of Next Generation Innovation Systems Development in China and Russia and the SYNBIOCHEM RRI Group. Dr. Jan Youtie (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Xiao Liang (MBS Doctoral Student) were also involved in interviews. For further information, contact: pshapira@mbs.ac.uk