The U.S. must fund more biotech innovation – or other countries will catch up faster than you think
The U.S. has approximately 58 percent of the market share in the biotech sector, followed by China with 11 percent. However, this market share is the result of several years of previous research and development (R&D) – it is a present picture of what happened in the past. In the future, this market share will decline unless the federal government makes investments to improve the quality and quantity of U.S. research in biotech.
The effectiveness of current R&D can be evaluated in a variety of ways such as monies invested and the number of patents filed. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the U.S. spends approximately 2.7 percent of GDP on R&D ($476,459.0M), whereas China spends 2 percent ($346,266.3M). However, investment levels do not necessarily translate into goods that end up contributing to innovation.
Patents are a better indication of innovation. The biotech industry relies on patents to protect their investments, making patenting a key tool in the process of translating scientific discoveries that can ultimately benefit patients. In 2020, China filed 1,497,159 patents, a 6.9 percent increase in growth rate. In contrast, the U.S. filed 597,172, a 3.9 percent decline. When it comes to patents filed, China has approximately 45 percent of the world share compared to 18 percent for the U.S.
So how did we get here? The nature of science in academia allows scientists to specialize by dedicating several years to advance discovery research and develop new inventions that can then be licensed by biotech companies. This makes academic science critical to innovation in the U.S. and abroad.
Academic scientists rely on government and foundation grants to pay for R&D, which includes salaries for faculty, investigators and trainees, as well as monies for infrastructure, support personnel and research supplies. Of particular interest to academic scientists to cover these costs is government support such as Research Project Grants, also known as R01 grants, the oldest grant mechanism from the National Institutes of Health. Unfortunately, this funding mechanism is extremely competitive, as applications have a success rate of only about 20 percent. To maximize the chances of getting funded, investigators tend to limit the innovation of their applications, since a project that seems overambitious is discouraged by grant reviewers.
Considering the difficulty in obtaining funding, the limited number of opportunities for scientists to become independent investigators capable of leading their own scientific projects, and the salaries available to pay for scientists with a doctoral degree, it is not surprising that the U.S. is progressively losing its workforce for innovation.
This approach affects the future success of the R&D enterprise in the U.S. Pursuing less innovative work tends to produce scientific results that are more obvious than groundbreaking, and when a discovery is obvious, it cannot be patented, resulting in fewer inventions that go on to benefit patients. Even though there are governmental funding options available for scientists in academia focused on more groundbreaking and translational projects, those options are less coveted by academic scientists who are trying to obtain tenure and long-term funding to cover salaries and other associated laboratory expenses. Therefore, since only a small percent of projects gets funded, the likelihood of scientists interested in pursuing academic science or even research in general keeps declining over time.
Efforts to raise the number of individuals who pursue a scientific education are paying off. However, the number of job openings for those trainees to carry out independent scientific research once they graduate has proved harder to increase. These limitations are not just in the number of faculty openings to pursue academic science, which are in part related to grant funding, but also the low salary available to pay those scientists after they obtain their doctoral degree, which ranges from $53,000 to $65,000, depending on years of experience.
Thus, considering the difficulty in obtaining funding, the limited number of opportunities for scientists to become independent investigators capable of leading their own scientific projects, and the salaries available to pay for scientists with a doctoral degree, it is not surprising that the U.S. is progressively losing its workforce for innovation, which results in fewer patents filed.
Perhaps instead of encouraging scientists to propose less innovative projects in order to increase their chances of getting grants, the U.S. government should give serious consideration to funding investigators for their potential for success -- or the success they have already achieved in contributing to the advancement of science. Such a funding approach should be tiered depending on career stage or years of experience, considering that 42 years old is the median age at which the first R01 is obtained. This suggests that after finishing their training, scientists spend 10 years before they establish themselves as independent academic investigators capable of having the appropriate funds to train the next generation of scientists who will help the U.S. maintain or even expand its market share in the biotech industry for years to come. Patenting should be given more weight as part of the academic endeavor for promotion purposes, or governmental investment in research funding should be increased to support more than just 20 percent of projects.
Remaining at the forefront of biotech innovation will give us the opportunity to not just generate more jobs, but it will also allow us to attract the brightest scientists from all over the world. This talented workforce will go on to train future U.S. scientists and will improve our standard of living by giving us the opportunity to produce the next generation of therapies intended to improve human health.
This problem cannot rely on just one solution, but what is certain is that unless there are more creative changes in funding approaches for scientists in academia, eventually we may be saying “remember when the U.S. was at the forefront of biotech innovation?”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/