May 4th, 2012
Last week, President Obama laid out an ambitious plan to channel scientific innovation into economic growth, called the National Bioeconomy Blueprint. The Blueprint is heavily focused on “green” chemistry, and that’s good news for companies, investors, and workers that are involved in biofuels, bioplastics and other products based on sustainable alternatives to petroleum. However, that doesn’t necessarily all translate into a sparkling green future of worry-free sustainability. The blueprint also calls for a streamlining of “burdensome regulatory barriers,” and that’s where advocates will have to look out for trouble spots.
From biofuels to green chemistry
If the concept of green chemistry is new to you, the basic idea is the same as biofuels. From fabrics to medications, the goods we manufacture depend heavily on petrochemicals. Green chemistry broadly refers to the use of non-fossil feedstocks for industrial processes.
To cite just one example of the impact of green chemistry on economic potentials, Triple Pundit recently covered a green chemistry project that partners beer giant AB-InBev with a company called Blue Marble Bio. The project involves processing brewery waste to make carboxylic acids, a group of compounds commonly used to make soaps and other toiletries.
Home-grown green products for a growing nation
The Bioeconomy Blueprint basically expands on the old (very old) issue of U.S. dependency on foreign oil, by expanding the arena from energy to encompass a far broader range of products:
“A growing U.S. population requires increased health services and more material resources including food, animal feed, fiber for clothing and housing, and sources of energy and chemicals for manufacturing. Recent advances in the biological sciences are allowing more and more of these needs to be met not with petroleum-based products and other non-renewable resources but with materials that are quite literally home-grown.”
From green research to green market
The Bioeconomy Blueprint outline five strategic areas that will need to be addressed in order to achieve this goal, each of which stepladders on the others.
The first is obvious: there needs to be more support for research and development. The second just as obviously follows from that: new products need a smoother, faster pathway from research to the marketplace.
The third partly overlaps the second, since it deals with streamlining the regulatory framework needed to get new ideas out of the lab and onto the shelves. This is where things could get sticky in terms of environmental and public health protections. The Blueprint addresses that by inserting “protecting human and environmental health” into this strategic area, but that is a goal – not a guarantee.
Bioeconomy and green jobs
The fourth strategic area necessarily encompasses the first three. Within the new bioeconomic research, manufacturing, marketing and regulatory framework there is an enormous demand for innovators, skilled workers and policy makers. All of these require some degree of specialized training, but the complication is that the cost of education has been skyrocketing. In order to get the bioeconomy moving under full steam, there must be a means to attract more talent into the workforce – in other words, a rethinking of the way education is financed in the U.S.
A blueprint for green investment
Finally, the fifth area addresses the key question: Who’s gonna pay for all this? Past scientific collaborations relied more heavily on government investment, but in today’s climate, the Blueprint takes a more cautionary approach that focuses on public-private partnerships.
Public-private partnerships are not without risk, though. As the aftermath of the Solyndra bankruptcy demonstrates, when an individual public-private partnership goes sour it can create an opening to politicize an entire area of research and development.
A green technology revolution
All in all, the Bioeconomy Blueprint tries to put some order into a technological revolution that is every bit as far-reaching and as unstoppable as the Industrial Revolution.
The fossil fuels that powered the Industrial Revolution into contemporary times relieved the burden of providing that power from the Earth’s biomass, but along the way they created problems of their own. Similarly, the transition out of fossil products is inevitable but it has already raised new challenges, for example in terms of food-versus-fuel and forest-to-farmland issues.
Somewhat drily, when the White House announced the Bioeconomy Blueprint it noted that “it will be important to assess the impact of these efforts and apply any new metrics for measuring changes in investment, infrastructure, jobs, and more.”
If you’d like to add your two cents, particularly in the “and more” category, the public is invited to email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.