Saturday 18 July 2015

Bioinformatics in the UK, India and China

By Brian Salter, Yinhua Zhou and Saheli Datta

Bioinformatics has recently been recognised in the UK as a ‘huge priority for government’ with the ‘potential to drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation and ultimately transform lives.’ (UK Medical Research Council, 2014). While there is wide agreement among nations regarding the importance of bioinformatics, there is little consensus over possible pathways for maximising its contribution to the life sciences. A recent paper by Salter, Zhou and Datta (2015) explores the extent to which bioinformatics have become a strategic priority for India, China and the UK, and how these efforts are shaping or are in turn being shaped by the existing norms, rules and institutions in the global lifesciences.

Bioinformatics is the combination of knowledge, skills and techniques of biology made 'readable' with computer science, statistics and mathematics. The traditional view of the role of mathematics and computer science in bioinformatics was that of a 'means' to the end of capturing and understanding increasingly data-intensive biological knowledge production e.g. as with genomic data. However, in the last few years a more balanced view has emerged that considers computer science and mathematical tools as both the object and instrument of knowledge production. Leonelli’s (2012: 2) comment that ‘data-intensive methods are changing what counts as good science’- is perhaps nowhere more relevant today than in bioinformatics where the tug-of-war for primacy between two disparate branches of science (mathematics and biology) has become increasingly polarized.

For nations, in particular emerging economies, these spaces of rapidly advancing technology, uncertainty and political tensions that sit uncomfortably within the hegemonic norms, rules and institutions in the global lifesciences increasingly represent spaces of future growth and opportunities for catching up with the west. For emerging economies, the ensuing shift from ‘developmental state’ into what has been described as the ‘adaptive state’ and the ‘transformative state’ signals the opportunity to shape global lifesciences according to their national interests (Kim, 1999; Salter, 2009a; Wu, 2004; Wong, 2005). For the west, the changing nature of ‘science’ and simultaneously the changing role of emerging economies’ participation in global sciences, questions the established mutually beneficial relationship between ‘state and science’ – where science supplies the state with a flow of knowledge, and the state supplies science with the resources to pursue research interests – the fundamental question being how to accommodate transnational science with national interest?

Yet, it would be mistake to presume that the changing nature of science presents only opportunities and few challenges for emerging economies. From a political perspective, the mutually beneficial state-science relationship at the heart of western domination of global lifesciences since WWII never really developed in India, China or Brazil. Simply put, science in the BRICS lacked political value – until now; thus today, for science to progress the key need is to forge and nurture the ‘science and state’ relationship. Furthermore, while a scientific elite is emerging in the BRICS, their experience in negotiating the key science-state relationship to take the national scientific ambition forward is lacking - although the reverse influx of seasoned diaspora (to the BRICS) from elite western scientific communities is helpful. Similarly, the institutional tools generated by more than sixty years of western domination of global lifesciences is reflected in the hegemonic dynamic of today's global bioinformatics governance and in turn disadvantages new entrants like the BRICS whose establishment of similar institutional strengths is still in its nascent stages. For instance, the Bermuda rules of 1996 enabled the development of bioinformatics self-regulation in western nations, but at the exclusion of China and India.

In the case of China, a top-down style of innovation governance has been adopted with the State Council setting the 'science' agenda with its Five Year Plans. Similarly, India’s Planning Commission’s (recently dissolved) has so far used a similar mechanism of Five Year Plans to set the agenda for the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the Department of Technology (DIT). In contrast the UK's bottom-up approach with funding from both public and private sources is strengthened by a state apparatus that collaborates closely with a science-led (and scientific elite led) agenda. Neverthless, the Chinese or Indian state's committment to becoming global players cannot be doubted. For instance, between 2005 and 2014, China invested a whopping £303 million in bioinformatics compared to India’s £18 million and UK’s £163.9 million. However, a close study reveals that the bulk of China’s funding of £216 million while earmarked under the broad category of ‘bioinformatics’ was further earmarked under the sub-category ‘New Drug Creation and Development (2009-2010)’ – implying that states differ in their interpretation of what constitutes or differentiates bioinformatics from biomedical innovation.

That western hegemonic domination of global lifesciences has extended into bioinformatics is an accepted fact. However, the extent to which this status quo will be retained given the changing nature of science and the spaces of opportunity it has created for the BRICS to climb ever higher in the global lifesciences value chain, is worth questioning.

This blog post originally appeared on the Global Biopolitics Research Centre blog on 15 July 2015.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Cooperation or competition? China and Russia in Central Asia

By Ivan Campbell

The recent launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank highlights China's economic and strategic ambitions, and will accelerate its economic expansion into Central Asia. As geopolitical dynamics shift, Ivan Campbell considers whether relations between China and the traditional regional hegemon, Russia, are likely to be characterised by continuing pragmatic cooperation or growing competition.

On June 29 delegates from 50 countries gathered in Beijing for the signing ceremony of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The Chinese-led initiative is being seen as a diplomatic and strategic success for China, with this new multilateral financial institution set to provide an alternative to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Its creation was motivated in part by Chinese frustration at its under-representation and lack of influence in the existing international financial architecture, which remains dominated by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. However, despite opposition from the US, several of its allies – including the UK, Germany and Australia – have joined the AIIB as founding members.

The establishment of the AIIB reflects the shifting balance of global economic power from west to east, and it is expected to advance China's broader economic expansion. Intended to fund Asian energy, transport and infrastructure projects, the AIIB will support the reorientation of China's economic policy from domestic infrastructure development to infrastructure development beyond its borders. In addition, it ties in with China's periphery diplomacy and will enable China to engage more proactively, and to develop closer relationships, with other Asian countries – or as President Xi put it, to “turn China's neighbourhood areas into a community of common destiny”.

The launch of the Chinese-led AIIB is particularly significant when viewed from the perspective of Central Asia. It is likely to reinforce Chinese trade and investment in the region, which has already expanded massively in recent years. In 2013 President Xi signed deals worth a reported US$100 billion with four Central Asian states, and this came on top of a one hundred-fold increase in trade between China and Central Asia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The AIIB supports China's vision of inclusive trade and transport integration in Eurasia, embodied in the concept of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The vision includes rail, road and air links, as well as energy pipelines. Financing will come from China's Silk Road Fund, as well as the AIIB and the Shanghai-based BRICS New Development Bank.

What are the implications of these developments for the five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan? For much of the time since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the international community has viewed Central Asia as a region of risk and potential instability. This has been compounded by the chronic violence and insecurity affecting neighbouring Afghanistan. As a consequence, international engagement in the region over recent decades has been underpinned by a concern to contain conflict risks and to shore up state stability, despite significant concerns about governance and human rights.

One view is that having regarded Central Asia primarily through the lens of security – especially in relation to Afghanistan – the major powers are increasingly shifting their focus to the region's economic potential. Henceforth international engagement will be driven as much by the desire to tap the markets and resources of Central Asia as by concerns about conflict risks and instability. China has led this reorientation of approach through the Silk Road Economic Belt, AIIB and similar instruments, but it can be seen also in terms of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the US New Silk Road Initiative, and India's Connect Central Asia policy.

The potential benefits for Central Asian states, in terms of increased trade, investment and connectivity are clear – but equally there are risks arising from increased economic intervention when one considers conflict dynamics within the region and broader geopolitical trends. There is a range of threats to peace and stability both within and between the five Central Asian states. These include poor governance, weak rule of law, ethnic divisions, competition over water and land resources, drug-trafficking, and widespread poverty. There are particular concerns that conflict could be triggered by the eventual presidential successions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan when those changes come. Add in the threat of violent spill-over from Afghanistan, especially following the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the fragility of peace and stability in the region is all too apparent.

The geopolitical significance and abundant resources of the Central Asian region have long made it attractive to great powers, and thus the locus of strategic competition. China and Russia will increasingly be the principal players on this stage, especially after the final ISAF drawdown. As China steps up its engagement in Central Asia, it will inevitably affect local conflict dynamics. It may well create great opportunities for economic development in the region, but it also risks exacerbating existing inequalities or provoking local tensions. China's growing presence and influence in the region – despite being outwardly benign and focused on economic integration – has created unease about its longer-term intentions. Chinese attempts to lease tracts of land in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for instance, have generated considerable antipathy towards China among local populations.

Russia is the traditional regional power in Central Asia and, despite its diminished influence in the post-Soviet era, it remains the pre-eminent military and political actor. Thus far, Russia and China have co-existed relatively harmoniously in the Central Asian space, and appear keen to maintain a show of good relations – for example, President Xi's seat next to President Putin at the Victory Day parade in Moscow in May 2015. And China has appeared content to cede pre-eminence to Russia when it comes to matters of direct involvement in the politics or security of Central Asian states. However, Russia is inevitably apprehensive about China's economic expansion, especially given that China overtook Russia as Central Asia's number one trading partner in 2010. Furthermore, Russia is likely to be watching China's military modernisation programme with concern, as this will allow it to develop and project new capabilities in its border areas, including Central Asia.

Another important consideration is Russia's increasingly assertive stance in the former Soviet space. Recent events in Ukraine, and before that in Georgia, have been viewed by many as Russia seeking to reassert a dominant role in its former sphere of influence. The significance of Ukraine events for Central Asia should not be over-stated, but the repercussions may be far-reaching. Russia could potentially apply the same intervention logic – to protect ethnic Russians or identified Russian interests – to other states in its neighbourhood. This has caused unease in neighbouring regions, including Central Asia. Taken together with Russian attempts to engage the region in a closer economic embrace through the EEU, there are concerns that Russia will seek to reassert itself here too.

The AIIB represents a significant new element in the geopolitics around Central Asia. In some quarters, there are concerns about a new superpower axis between China and Russia – based on flourishing trade, growing military cooperation and shared geo-strategic interests. But equally their respective aspirations may set these two powers on an eventual collision course. Central Asia represents an important test-case. How the dynamics of China's economic expansion on one side of this fragile region and an increasingly assertive Russia on the other play out will shape the future of Central Asia and prospects for peace and stability.

In 2013-14 Saferworld undertook research into China's growing engagement in Central Asia, as well as the changing role of Russia. We analysed how this affects – and may affect in the future – the regional economic and security context. In a new report we consider how the relationship between Russia and China in Central Asia is likely to evolve – whether one of continued pragmatic cooperation or of increasing rivalry and possible conflict. The report launched today, in Chinese, Russian and English language versions, summarises the findings of Saferworld's research and the implications for peace and stability in Central Asia.

Read Central Asia at a crossroads

Ivan Campbell is Senior Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld. This blog post was originally published on the Saferworld website on 13 July 2015.

Sunday 12 July 2015

China and Brazil in African Agriculture: new papers published!

By Henry Tugendhat
Image by Gualberto107,

If you think that the biggest story about Brazilian and Chinese agricultural engagements in Africa is land grabs, you’d be wrong. In fact, the big stories consist of almost everything else. From migration, to technology transfers, to development assistance programmes, Brazil and China have been having an impact on agricultural development in different ways across sub-Saharan Africa.

For the past three years, a team of 25 researchers has been looking at these engagements in great detail. We come from institutions across Brazil, China, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the UK, and often found that what was most interesting was not what we’d originally set out to observe.

This was particularly so with our ambition to map out all of the Brazilian and Chinese development cooperation engagements in the agricultural sectors of our four African case study countries. The data were simply not available, and when they were they were almost invariably incomplete or plain wrong. Agricultural engagements are still nascent in most of Africa, so initiatives were just unfolding as we did our research. Furthermore, we came up against the perennial problem of what constitutes aid and what constitutes trade, investment or public relations in relation to Chinese and Brazilian engagements. ‘Development cooperation’ is a mix of all of these, and we wanted to get to grips with this hybrid mix.

So rather than get more confused by the official statistics, we instead launched ourselves into some detailed case study research, using a mix of ethnographic methods. In the end we studied 16 different cases across the case study countries, as well as the domestic political economy in Brazil and China framing these interventions. Our aim was to understand both day-to-day practices, but also situate these within the broader political-economic drivers. As a team of anthropologists, economists, political-economists, agronomists, and international relations experts, we have therefore combined our expertise to pick out what we think are some of the most important insights from these engagements to date.

In Mozambique we looked at Brazil’s Prosavana project and the rise of civil society contestations; in Zimbabwe we looked at tractor deals coming in from both Brazil and China; and in Ghana and Ethiopia we looked at the migration patterns of Chinese farmers and their impacts on the local economies - to name but a few examples. Some of these papers look at the drivers for Brazil and China to engage in these cooperation projects in the first place, others analyse what is already happening as these projects hit the ground and how local African farmers, communities and officials engage with them. In total, we now have a series of over 20 Working Papers, alongside an earlier IDS Bulletin and a special issue of a journal which is under review. We had our UK launch event in London last month, and public events are also taking place across the six other countries involved to engage policy makers, businesses, development practitioners, civil society groups and researchers.

The papers are free to download from the Future Agricultures Consortium website, and together they present an original take – and much new empirical information - on the nature of Brazilian and Chinese engagements in African agriculture.

Monday 6 July 2015

Has bioethics matured to the point where it is capable of re-orienting the relations between science, state and bioethics in the governance of science?

To answer these questions authors Brian Salter and Alison Harvey looked at the case of the production of human/animal chimeras (i.e. genetic hybrids) in scientific research. It is not a new practice: “cytoplasmic hybrids fusing human and non-human (mouse or hamster) cells were developed in the 1960s and were used in early studies mapping the human genome” (p. 688). Yet it has only recently come under ethical scrutiny. In 2011, the UK Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) released a report entitled: ‘Animals containing human material’ (ACHM). The report had the ambition of shaping future regulation and governance of chimera use in biomedical research.

Whereas traditionally states have used bioethics to legitimise policy-making, the case of chimeras illustrates how bioethics is becoming more of a proactive player in the mediation of state, society and science. In the case human/animal chimeras, public bioethics (distinct from academic bioethics) is actively framing the problem, the debate, and hence its solutions. Bioethical bodies in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and in the EU, at large, have already expressed concern and interest in the issue.

What makes current and future trends in the use of human/animal chimeras even more ethically problematic is the fact that it combines existing controversial features of scientific research: genetic modification (GM) and human embryonic stem cells (HESC). Although the introduction of human elements in animals - such as mice - are unlikely to raise issues of animal welfare, there remains the everlasting conflict of values over the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural’. Combined with the ethical dilemma of using of embryonic stem cells, human/animal chimeras become rather problematic.

As a solution the AMS report puts forward the concept of ‘human dignity’, arguing that respect for ‘human dignity’ may serve as the ultimate guideline in the production of chimeras, by neatly addressing both the issue of GM and HESCs. It also assures that a tight leash is kept on science and the extent to which chimeras can be made ‘human-like’. Finally, such a solution welcomes bioethics, but continues to preserve its political neutrality.

To read the full paper click here. 

This blog post originally appeared on the Global Biopolitics Research Centre blog on  15 June 2015.

Friday 3 July 2015

Synthetic biology in China: An update from the field

By Yanchao Li and Philip Shapira

Over a two-week period in May 2015, we undertook a series of interviews in China with scientists and entrepreneurs working in the fast growing domain of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology involves redesigning biological components and systems present in the natural world or making new ones from scratch. Champions expect synthetic biology to drive a new industrial revolution, shifting economies to greener, bio-materials and offering opportunities to develop innovative products and applications in medicine, agri-food, energy, information technology, and other fields. The UK published a pioneering Synthetic Biology Roadmap in 2012 and has funded a series of new synthetic biology research and commercialisation initiatives. In the US, the European Union, other developed countries, and now China, researchers and companies are now similarly exploring the opportunities presented by synthetic biology. China’s efforts are underpinned by its policy drive to shift from routine manufacturing to more innovative high-technology sectors and the considerable expansion in recent years in Chinese resources and capabilities for science, engineering, and innovation.

During our field research in China, we visited several key institutions undertaking synthetic biology research and commercialization in China, interviewing a range of researchers, entrepreneurs and high-level managers. China has long used a centrally managed five-year planning approach to signal science and technology priorities, fund research and training in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and universities, guide regional agencies, and support technology commercialization. These plans did not foresee the rapid recent growth of attention in other countries to synthetic biology. However, prompted in part by the fast scale-up of the UK programme, Chinese governmental sources have expanded support for synthetic biology research, including at local levels. Academicians and science and technology policy officials have prepared a Chinese roadmap that identifies strategic targets in synthetic biology over five, ten and twenty year periods. Nearer-term goals include building databases of standardized biological parts and developing computational competency for part and device design. China’s roadmap also outlines timelines for commercial and clinical applications of parts, devices, and systems developed using synthetic biology and engineering. Indeed, we observed an actively developing community of synthetic biology researchers, entrepreneurs and established companies.

We met with several key people involved in synthetic biology research in China, including at Tsinghua University in Beijing and at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Research groups in these institutions target both scientific outputs and commercialization, with close links to scientific entrepreneurs and established companies. In an incubator at Tsinghua University, we visited a start-up company that is drawing on university research to engineer polyhydroxyalkanoates (polyesters fashioned by bacterial fermentation). The company’s patented organism can be used to make biodegradable plastics using seawater (rather than more expensive freshwater). We also visited a US-owned biological research company based in eastern China that employs a labour force of Chinese scientists and technicians to provide gene synthesis, cell line development, and biological testing services and products to a worldwide customer base. The company is exploring synthetic genome design and other ways in which synthetic biology can be used to develop enhanced and new services and products.

However, systematic approaches in China to address the ethical, legal, equity, and societal implications of synthetic biology are not evident. As yet, no explicit measures to foster responsible research and innovation are embedded in Chinese initiatives to develop synthetic biology, and China has not emulated the open processes of broad consultation and public engagement seen in the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap. This is not to say there is no discussion about broader implications in China. Just before our visit, a group of Chinese scientists from Sun Yat-sen University generated worldwide controversy through their efforts to genetically modify human embryos. We were told that this work also ignited debate among scientists and policymakers in China, although without consensus as to its appropriateness and what should be done to more effectively govern biological research by Chinese researchers to address ethical and safety concerns. Debate on such topics in China has tended to be restricted to small-scale groups of academics and policymakers. Still, there are signs that issues are being discussed. A recent Xiangshan-Science academic workshop considered ethical issues and governance of converging technologies, while one of the first academic meetings in China on responsible research and innovation is being held this summer. There are also early indications of the use of China’s extensive social media platforms to highlight specific projects in synthetic biology. It remains to be seen whether and how such developments will influence the governance and trajectories of research and innovation of synthetic biology in China.

Philip Shapira is Professor of Innovation, Management and Policy at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School (MBS), The University of Manchester, UK, and is Principal Investigator for the Project on Emerging Technologies, Trajectories and Implications of Next Generation Innovation Systems Development in China and Russia (ES/J012785/1). He is also a Co-Investigator with the Manchester Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SYNBIOCHEM) (BB/M017702/1) and lead for SYNBIOCHEM’s Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) Group. Dr. Yanchao Li is a Research Associate with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and a researcher with the Project on Emerging Technologies, Trajectories and Implications of Next Generation Innovation Systems Development in China and Russia and the SYNBIOCHEM RRI Group. Dr. Jan Youtie (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Xiao Liang (MBS Doctoral Student) were also involved in interviews. For further information, contact:

Wednesday 1 July 2015

The emergence of an industry cluster: Brazil’s ‘Oil Island’

By Alec Waterworth

Ilha do Fundao is an island complex constructed in the Guanabara Bay north of downtown Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The island’s transformation reflects broader trends of technological and industrial development and also some of the challenges seen in Brazil in recent years. For fifty years, Ilha do Fundao was home to CENPES (the primary research and development centre of Petrobras, Brazil’s massive semi-public oil and gas company), and to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering (COPPE). Yet, large areas of this mostly artificial island had laid empty. Today, that has changed. Ilha do Fundao is now also occupied by technology centres from nine leading companies in the global oil and gas industry and is emerging as a cluster of innovation in the oil and gas sectors. I have visited the island several times over the last two years in order to interview the actors in this emerging industry cluster. As a technology manager at CENPES told me during my most recent visit, “a new world has been created”.
General Electric’s US$100m research centre on Ilha do Fundao, opened in late 2013
Ilha do Fundao’s makeover has centred around the university-owned technology park in the south of the island. Next door to this is the university’s business incubator, which has expanded from one multi-firm building to three. A thirty-minute walk from the technology park takes you to CENPES and in between this lies COPPE. COPPE and CENPES have a long history in collaborating together: Over the last fifty years, COPPE has been instrumental in establishing Petrobras as a technology leader in the exploration and production of oil and gas, and most recently, as a specialist in deep and ultra-deep water technologies. “There has always been an exchange of knowledge. […] Petrobras has never worked completely alone,” said one of my interviewees at Petrobras. “Petrobras not only used their knowledge, it shared knowledge … so the university [could] help us.”

Technological and innovation capabilities on the island are now further enhanced with the arrival of new residents on the island, including Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, Halliburton, FMC Technologies, Siemens, BG Group, General Electric and Vallourec. These firms have invested heavily in the area, establishing large and expensive R&D centres. For example, FMC’s 20,000 square metre facility cost around US$25million to build. Why there? FMC hopes to tap into the university campus, to create a collaborative environment and enable access.

Yet, despite these new R&D investments, operational challenges remain. As yet, cooperation between the new companies on the island is still weak. Several companies identified this as a source of concern. Perhaps with strong relationship already built by Petrobras, it is hard for newcomers to forge links with local academics. But there may be other reasons. These issues will be examined in an academic paper in preparation this year which addresses the motivations of foreign multinational enterprises in Brazil in locating in industry clusters, how they participate in those clusters, the extent to which the collaborative efforts of such firms are inhibited by barriers to entry, and the implications for industrial innovation in Brazil. 

Alec Waterworth is a doctoral student with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester, UK, and a researcher with the Project on Emerging Technologies, Trajectories and Implications of Next Generation Innovation Systems Development in China and Russia (ES/J012785/1). Alec is completing his doctoral research on path dependence, path renewal, and the evolution of innovation in Brazil’s petroleum sector. For further information, contact: