Mary Maxon, Assistant Director for Biological Research, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy


Assistant Director for Biological Research at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy joins International Innovation to discuss the essential role of the Science Division in envisioning and enacting future change for the benefit of the U.S. and the world


You hold a key position as Assistant Director for Biological Research at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the Science Division. What are the main responsibilities of this Division?

The Science Division at OSTP is responsible for delivering the best available evidence and information for informed policy making in the areas of physical and life sciences, agriculture, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. President Obama values evidence-based decision making, and recognises the roles of science and education in forging a robust future for the U.S.

As the agency charged with providing scientific information to the President and the White House offices, OSTP and its Science Division pursue the President’s vision of an America in which policies support the pursuit of great science and great science supports the development of policies.

In what ways does the Science Division at the OSTP communicate with other divisions and agencies to address national issues such as food security and infectious diseases in a holistic manner?

Under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) – a Cabinet level Council that exists to coordinate science and technology policy across the Federal research enterprise – OSTP’s Science Division creates and oversees inter-agency groups focused on life sciences, physical sciences, and social and behavioural sciences. For example, under the NSTC’s Subcommittee on Life Sciences, there are inter-agency groups focused on aquaculture, synthetic biology, and U.S. life sciences research priorities for the International Space Station. Each of the NSTC’s committees and sub-committees is populated by science and policy experts from the various executive branch agencies with equities in the relevant topic area.

The Science Division also responds to requests from departments, agencies and White House offices regarding a broad range of scientific research areas, such as stem cell research, biosecurity, and large-scale national and international scientific facilities. The Science Division also works closely with the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, providing scientific expertise and guidance on existing or proposed regulations that involve scientific research. For example, as of today, there are 165 pending regulatory actions by Federal agencies – including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to name a few – many of which require scientific review.

Could you briefly outline the main objectives of the Administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint that you have been working on?

The bioeconomy – the creation of public benefit through biological research – has emerged as an Obama Administration priority because of its tremendous potential for growth, as well as the many societal benefits it offers, such as advancements to allow Americans to live longer, healthier lives, reduce U.S. dependence on oil for energy and manufacturing needs, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while growing new jobs and industries.

The main objectives are:

• To support research and development investments that will provide the foundation for the future U.S. bioeconomy

• To facilitate the transition of bioinventions from research lab to market, including an increased focus on translational and regulatory sciences

• To develop and reform regulations to reduce barriers, increase the speed and predictability of regulatory processes, and reduce costs while protecting human and environmental health

• To update training programmes and align academic institution incentives with student training for national workforce needs

• To identify and support opportunities for the development of public-private partnerships and precompetitive collaborations, where competitors pool resources, knowledge and expertise to learn from successes and failures

The National Bioeconomy Blueprint aims to address national challenges in health, food, energy and the environment. What would you identify as the most pressing challenges facing the U.S. currently? What type of role can biological research have in addressing these?

Among the most pressing challenges are:

• Keeping pace with the need for increased food and energy demands for a larger population while preserving human and environmental health and safety

• Increasing health outcomes while decreasing healthcare costs

• Building an appropriately trained workforce for the bioeconomy jobs of the future

To meet increased food and energy demands, biological research, through plant breeding and biotechnology advancements, continues to offer opportunities to develop specialised crops with desired characteristics to meet societal goals. For example, specialised biofuel crops that can grow on marginal lands and are not food crops promise to relieve competition for land in the ‘food versus fuel’ crops challenge. Enhanced food crops that are developed for drier, warmer climates will help farmers decrease financially- and environmentally-costly inputs, such as fertiliser and water, and adjust to changing climates.

Biological research also offers tremendous opportunities for improving human health and decreasing costs of healthcare. For example, research studies focused on human genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics are informing specific new therapeutic approaches to improve health. In addition to contributing to new therapies to treat illnesses, the use of biological research to illuminate causes of disease can lead to significant progress in disease prevention. Disease prevention and successful early interventions are expected to significantly reduce healthcare costs, especially for chronic illnesses that affect a large number of Americans, such as heart disease and diabetes.

The Obama Administration has adopted an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to improving American education, especially STEM education. Questions in biology about the natural world, such as ‘why do caterpillars turn into butterflies?’ are some of the first scientific interests children demonstrate. If early interests in biology can be fostered and solidified through changes in American education systems – not only at the elementary level but all the way through college – the full range of scientific and engineering disciplines will likely benefit, as will the workplaces that will eventually hire the students from American schools and universities.

In light of the recent economic downturn and the current emphasis on austerity, what would you say are the benefits of further investment in biological research and innovation?

Basic research funding has traditionally generated consistent positive returns, and the benefits extend beyond research discoveries and into real economic impact. As an example of short-term impact, a recent report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NIH’s Role in Sustaining the U.S. Economy, projected that $26.6 billion in NIH extramural funding in 2010 directly and indirectly supported 487,900 jobs nationwide, leading to 15 states experiencing job growth of 10,000 or more. Long-term impacts of biological research are also clearly evident: life expectancy has nearly doubled since the beginning of the 20th Century; deaths from HIV/AIDs, initially an invariably fatal disease, have decreased by 94 per cent in the U.S.; and the biotechnology sector, a direct result of advances in biological research started in the U.S., is now a vibrant collection of industries focused on the development of products for food, energy, and health, among many others.

How do you think bioeconomy private-public partnerships can be used to accelerate innovation within particular areas?

Public-private partnerships are expected to be important elements of a robust U.S. bioeconomy. Especially valuable will be public-private partnerships in which incentives are provided to encourage industry competitors to engage in precompetitive data sharing – the pooling of data by competitors in order to learn from successes and failures. For example, if pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies shared information about what early-stage drugs failed in clinical trials, costly redundant clinical trials could be prevented. Similarly, if agriculture companies shared genomic information for food or energy crop plants that were unsuccessful in certain environments, expensive field trials could be avoided.

Public-private partnerships for education and training are envisioned to play a significant role also. A good alignment of incentives for universities to engage employers to inform curricula, to participate in educational activities, and to provide internships for trainees is predicted to have a favourable impact on universities, trainees, and future employers. In particular, public-private partnerships geared to inculcate entrepreneurship and innovation have great potential for the success of the future bioeconomy.

In what ways will the Blueprint ensure that the next generation of scientists and innovators is inspired to take up a career within the bioeconomy?

As described above, results of basic biological research have led to vast positive societal impacts. There are, and will continue to be, tremendous future opportunities for research advances that have obvious potential to foster new products and industries of great benefit. As was true during the advent of biotechnology, the intellectual challenges presented by these important future opportunities are expected to draw the next generation of scientists into dedicating their futures to these scientific c endeavours.

In addition, the National Bioeconomy Blueprint highlights the convergence of biological science with other scientific and engineering disciplines required for a robust future bioeconomy. For the last three decades, graduate students have been increasingly drawn to interdisciplinary training programmes and research opportunities, and as the bioeconomy challenges of the future emerge, the next generation of scientists and engineers are expected to follow past trends and increasingly join forces to address these challenges.

As a successful scientist with a PhD in molecular biology, would you say that the opportunities for women within science have become more prevalent since the beginning of your career? Are there still barriers within particular STEM fields that need to be broken down?

Women have made significant advances in the quest for equal standing in the U.S. workforce, and today we fill nearly 50 per cent of all jobs in the U.S. In the STEM fields, however, women still constitute less than 25 per cent of workers, despite the fact that women in STEM jobs earn 33 per cent more than our counterparts in non-STEM jobs.

While some strides have been made for women in STEM fields – for example, women comprised 40 per cent of the physical and life sciences jobs in 2009, up from 36 per cent in 2000 – barriers remain. U.S. scientific communities still do not resemble the American population in terms of gender, race, or ethnic diversity.

Many factors likely contribute to continuing male dominance in STEM jobs, and some of these, including lingering stereotypical perceptions that science and engineering are the domains of men and the lack of family-friendly flexibility in STEM workplaces, are the focus of some Obama Administration efforts to better balance STEM workforces. The National Science Foundation, for example, recently announced new family-friendly policies that will make it less likely that women have to choose between raising a family and pursuing their research careers.

To what extent do you believe that the U.S. should form international collaborations to further its biological research efforts and boost its bioeconomy?

Biological research efforts, like those of most scientific disciplines, have not been restricted to national boundaries, and new video conferencing and information technologies have served to greatly enhance the speed and success of international collaborations. For the future bioeconomy, international collaborations in food production and food safety are obvious choices for enhanced mutually-beneficial collaborative activities. Similarly, multi-sector partnerships focused on improving human health outcomes are good choices given that, like agriculture, human health is significantly influenced by international circumstances.

Where do you hope to see the U.S. bioeconomy in the coming years? Are there any particular areas that still need significant improvement?

In the near future, I hope to see bioeconomy advances that enable ‘ready to burn’ liquid fuels produced directly from CO2, bioplastics made not from oil but from renewable biomass, tailored food products to meet dietary demands, personalised medical treatments based on a patient’s own genomic information, and novel biosensors for real-time monitoring of the environment.

As for particular areas where significant improvements are required to boost the bioeconomy, great benefits would come from advances in the capture, storage, sharing, analysis, and visualisation of large, heterogeneous datasets. Complex datasets are growing rapidly and outstripping abilities to efficiently capture, store, share, analyse, and visualise them. One only needs to think about the amount of genomic information being generated hourly around the world to see how such data advances might fuel the future bioeconomy.

Another improvement that I believe would benefit the future bioeconomy is an improved public understanding of science in general, especially a better comprehension of genetically modified organisms and their risks and benefits for people, plants, animals and environments.