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?”