By Brian Reid
Sept. 9, 2002 | The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should work more closely with biotechnology and IT companies to tackle problems ranging from bioterrorism to advanced polymers for garments, according to reports issued from within the Pentagon this year that advocate a quadrupling of spending on biodefense.
The push toward more cooperation with the biotechnology and IT industries, laid out in both "The Defense Science Board 2001 Summer Study," released in May, and an internal report by the agency's Office of Net Assessment, would mark a shift for the Pentagon, which has long focused its resources internally and on physical rather than biological sciences.
"They're looking at staying abreast of technology. I think it's a serious new trend," says Brent Erickson, vice president for Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), who said that companies had already been contacted by the government. "We're already seeing some signs that it's being translated into action."
The interest in sound government bio-IT projects goes beyond the Pentagon. In July the White House asked agencies that are expected to be absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security to put certain tech infrastructure projects on hold until a single, unified system can be built.
The government push transcends traditional medical applications of biotechnology, Erickson says. The government has been approaching companies that perform a range of different biotech-oriented projects, he says, from alternative bio-fuels to DNA chip makers and bioinformatics firms.
Though advocates of additional spending at the DOD are encouraging planners to "rejuvenate" in-house science programs by reviewing every one of the department's 84 laboratories in detail by 2005, one of the report's main recommendations was additional use of the best technology of private industry. The report calls on the department to establish "commercial technology as the norm."
The emphasis on biotechnology was underway well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, though the attacks and the deadly anthrax mailings that followed have heightened the urgency. The Defense Science Board report, which was completed before the attacks, called for an increase in biodefense spending to $1 billion a year from $250 million. Sept. 11, wrote the co-chairs of the study group in a memo that accompanied the report, "confirms the validity of the conclusions and the need to accelerate implementation."
Howard Asher, the director of global life sciences at Sun Microsystems, says that the change in the government's approach to biotechnology and bio-IT is a direct response to the terror attacks and goes beyond the interest of the military.
More profoundly, he says, the national threat has prompted cooperation not only between government agencies and the industry, but among the competing federal bureaucracies themselves. That lack of the frequent inter-governmental squabbling, Asher said, is driving a revolution in the way the government approaches both IT and biotechnology.
"I think we got the wake-up call," Asher says. "They realize that the power of IT has to be well-utilized. We're all of a sudden seeing a common voice saying 'let's build a master plan.'"
The next step, Asher says, would be a similar infrastructure for bioterrorism, covering everything from top-of-the-line sensors to vaccine distribution.
Though not aimed squarely at bioterrorism, the Office of Mangement and Budget's request that the components of the nascent Department of Homeland Security put a temporary freeze on $1 billion in IT infrastructure projects signals the growing interest in unified systems.
Rather than scotching the plans for additional infrastructure altogether, the hold on new investments is designed to allow the government to coordinate the systems at the new department. The idea: Allow boarder patrol agents on the Mexican border to connect seamlessly to the same system used by Coast Guard patrols hundreds of miles away in Miami.
"Clearly, an integrated and universal IT system would provide the best support for homeland security -- including earlier detection and faster response to potential threats," wrote OMB director Mitch Daniels in a memo to the leaders of affected departments and agencies in July. "For this reason, existing investments should be assessed for appropriate use prior to procuring new IT infrastructure-related products and services."
The OMB directive won't have an impact on most biotechnology-related IT spending -- the biggest government patrons of the industry, such as the National Institutes of Health and FDA, won't be a part of the new cabinet-level organization -- but the effort underscores the government's growing interest in unified IT systems, especially as they apply to bioterrorism.
"There's a tremendous leap that's about to take place," Asher says. "I can't applaud the government enough."