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US will need a workforce with a variety of skills if it is to retain its ‘bioeconomy leader’ status, industry experts say.

“Retraining existing workers to work in plants that have yet to be built, or will be built shortly, will be under standard mechanical and engineering principles. This will not require PhDs, biology, or computational biology, but understanding how to operate a plant and run a plant.”

The US will need a workforce with a diversity of skills and experiences if it is to remain a ‘leader’ in the bioeconomy space, a panel of industry experts said at a US Senate Subcommittee hearing on biotechnology today.

The hearing, entitled ‘securing US leadership in the bioeconomy’, was held by the Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries and Weather at Capitol Hill and featured four witnesses. They were giving evidence to and answering questions posed by chairman of the Subcommittee Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, and ranking member of the Subcommittee Senator Democrat Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Senator Baldwin quoted a report from the US’ National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which said that “we need to build and sustain a skilled workforce to support the bioeconomy”. She acknowledged that some US sectors were already struggling to attract STEM workers. She also posed a question to the panel in relation to the “workers that will run the factories, the farms, the hospitals and other facilities” that will help “make these innovations into realities”, and not just the scientists and researchers.

Dr. Jason Kelly, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at biotechnology firm Ginkgo Bioworks, said: “The technology to print DNA and read DNA is very much an advanced manufacturing technology. If you visit our facility in Boston, it’s a 100,000-square-foot facility of advanced equipment with operators in front of it printing DNA and engineering these cells.

“When we finish our cell, which could be deployed in the environment, that’s farming and fermentation. The tools to deploy biology will not be new. Those skill sets will not come from Boston. Those are going to become more valuable skill sets in an area where a corn plant doesn’t grow…that makes farming more valuable in the future.”

Jason Gammack, Chief Commercial Officer at biotechnology firm Inscripta, said that workforce training is critical and there was a need for data analysis skills of “hard science”.

He added: “Trying to find a computational biologist to hire them is very, very difficult.

“If you look at the amount of data produced in biology it is astronomical. The dataset in biology all needs to be retained.”

However, he also said that “not everybody has to have a PhD to be successful in the bioeconomy”.

“The bioeconomy will revitalise the Midwest. We need those feedstocks and we need to build those plants in the Midwest. Fermentation is a messy science.

He said everybody could play an important role in developing the US bioeconomy, which could encompass operators of fermentation plants. “You don’t need a high-tech (degree) to run a fermentation plant. Retraining existing workers to work in plants that have yet to be built, or will be built shortly, will be under standard mechanical and engineering principles. This will not require PhDs, biology, or computational biology, but understanding how to operate a plant and run a plant.”

Dr. Megan Palmer, Senior Research Scholar at Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, concurred with Gammack and Kelly and said that the US needed a diverse workforce. She said: “Because biology is so broad and affects many sectors, we will need many people who are specialists in their specific sector… who can develop specialised products and services. And, many of these training programmes, and one-to-two-year training programmes will be critical as well.”


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