Christian Schröder, Professorship of Business Administration, in particular of SME Management and Entrepreneurship, University of Siegen.
United Nations and the sustainable development goals (SDGs)
Our world is increasingly confronted with grand challenges to which there are no or inadequate answers to date. To address these challenges, the member states of the UN developed the agenda 2030. The agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. The Rio+20 Summit in 2012 was the largest UN conference in history and formed the starting point for the creation of the SDGs, addressing the major challenges of our time. These SDGs were developed throughout a three-year process across 83 national surveys including over 7 million people. Hence, they are stemming from the biggest consultation efforts of UN history. The aim of the SDGs is to identify key problems concerning all countries (developing and emerging) and to tackle areas requiring urgent action. Consequently, the UN agreed on 17 SDGs that serve to sustainably improve the quality of life around the world. The global partnership addresses the urgent call for action to eradicate poverty, improve health and education, and reduce inequalities with simultaneous economic development. Further, it seeks to align all SDGs with climate change mitigation (United Nations, n.y.; https://sdgs.un.org/goals). Albeit receiving criticism for formulating too broad and idealistic ideas, the development of the SDGs is backed and supported by large parts of the academic community and gained great legitimacy across nations worldwide. One key problem that remains is the lack of awareness for the 17 SDGs. With this blog entry, we would like to change this and create more awareness for them. As time is rare and action is more than urgently required, we think that it is time to spread the message. If you would like to learn about the SDGs make sure to check out the video below and learn more about the 17 goals.
When I personally found out about the SDGs, I was immediately confronted with the question: how can we find solutions for all these problems in such a complex environment we are living in? Maybe you can relate to this thought. To shed more light on this question, it is vital to reconsider what we know and what we do not know about the SDGs and the grand challenges of our world to date. What we know is that the stakeholders involved, as well as the target audiences of these measures, span the entire world. Further, we are aware that the challenges are multi-faceted and complex. Also, it is clear that we need new approaches, ideas and actors to create a better, equal and sustainable world and that all this requires urgent action. Based on these considerations, it seems inevitable that new knowledge and innovation is needed to tackle the grand challenges of our time. What we do not know is how we can effectively ensure that these goals are met. Consequently, there is a growing demand to identify institutions and actors that can contribute to dealing with the grand challenges.
The role of universities, scientists and knowledge transfer: creating impactful research
From a historical perspective, universities and scientists are important institutions and actors to overcome social problems and grand challenges. More specifically, the knowledge and technology transfer from universities, colleges, and research institutes to society has proofed to be a key driver of economic, societal, and environmental progress (Perkmann et al., 2021; Block et al., 2017; Perkmann et al., 2013). When having a closer look on the specific contribution of science, two fields stood out as they had a great impact on the development of humankind. These are the fields of biotechnology and health sciences. Both research fields have significantly contributed as drivers for solving societal and economic challenges (Matei and Zirra, 2019; Thursby and Thursby, 2011). Biotechnology, for example, has enabled us to understand more about the relationship between genetics and disease, to develop more effective treatments, and even eliminate diseases entirely. Biotechnological innovations have also enabled more precise treatment methods leading to a noteworthy reduction in human and animal suffering. The discovery of completely new methods, such as the use of insulin to treat diabetes, have also significantly improved the well-being of numerous people. And biotechnological innovations also make a valuable contribution to society in terms of nutrition and healthcare. Thanks to these innovations, improvements in our daily life are evident today. Thanks to biotechnological innovations, many people have better access to nutritional supplements improving the lives of many people who are using modified microorganisms. Just think about the suppliers of your daily vitamin D supplements, well this is a prime example of biotechnology enriching our daily life. Unfortunately, life is not always good. In terms of diseases, infections, or other complaints we are confronted with the so-called “ill-being”. Hence, we are seeking for help – and that is why we consult doctors, nurses or medical practitioners. In this case, we are leaving the field of biotechnology and enter another area, namely the health sector. The health sciences build the academic foundation of the health industry and are the root of significant innovations. Thus, they contributed to overcoming major health related crises. However, they are also facing major challenges concerning aging societies and an increasing shortage of specialists and personnel. While these developments pose major challenges to the health sciences, they simultaneously reinforce the importance of scientific innovation in the field and establish health sciences as one of the most critical and crucial research fields today.
Considering present crises and challenges of our society, there are numerous needs for action for these two disciplines. To better understand the challenges, but also the potentials of both fields, I would like to give you a more precise overview on the characteristics and differences of both fields. Afterwards, we illustrate the role scientists can play in solving these problems how they can help us to tackle the UN’s SDGs. Before addressing the specific potentials of biotechnology and health sciences, let us first discuss what can be understood under these two disciplines.
Biotechnology: bridging the gap between science and grand challenges
According to the OECD (2005), “Biotechnology is the application of science or technologies relating to living organisms or their parts, their products, or general models, to generate living or non-living matter for the production of knowledge, to increase the body of knowledge, and to provide for the manufacture of products or services” (OECD, 2005; www.biotechnologie.de). In other words, biotechnology use cases are not restricted to one field, but are very versatile. The academic field of biotechnology ranges from research about microorganisms to the analysis of large organisms and involves humans, animals, plants or individual cells. Nowadays, biotechnology is subdivided into the fields of medicine (red), agriculture (green) and industry (white). However, it is by no means a new or modern science. People have been brewing beer and baking bread for centuries, exploiting the possibilities of biotechnology ever since.
Both, technological rise and biotechnological research innovations have created a novel and significant impact of the research field. Especially through an increased technical progress, biotechnology has made valuable contributions to solving societal problems over recent years. In 1983, the U.S. researcher Kary Mullis succeeded in copying DNA sections millions of times in a test tube, enabling the duplication of genetic material from tiny samples. This in turn allows extremely precise diagnostic tests. With this procedure, Mullis was the first scientist to develop efficient and precise PCR testing – and all that happened way before the COVID19 pandemic. Nowadays, almost everyone is familiar with PCR testing as it became an important element in combating the pandemic. Due to the large visibility throughout the pandemic is has gained worldwide popularity and prominence, although PCR tests are far from being novel. In the wake of the worldwide pandemic, they became so famous that people start to discuss about PCR tests at the family dinner. Nevertheless, the method itself is established since almost 40 years. Another prominent as well as revolutionary use case from biotechnology is the cloned sheep „Dolly“. A team of researchers around the Scotsman Ian Wilmut produced the first cloned mammal in humankind history. Using genetic material from a differentiated mammalian udder cell, the researchers were able to transfer it into an enucleated egg cell, successfully cloning an animal for the first time in history. This process has since been replicated in cattle and other farm animals. While the ethical implications of this technology are still being debated, biotechnology has gained worldwide notoriety.
Today, the biotechnology sector is one of the largest industries in the world. The annual revenues of the sector accumulate for around 300 billion dollars. Currently, there are more than 9.000 biotechnology ventures which create jobs for 852.000 employees. Hence, the impact of biotechnology on the economies worldwide cannot be neglected – and the industry forecasts foresee further growth (McGrath, 2021). The global sector is highly shaped by firms such as Merck, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson or the Roche Holding AG. When looking at the German biotechnology sector, two companies in particular stand out. Qiagen N.V. is the global market leader in sample preparation and testing technologies. With forecast annual sales of over 2 billion euros (Qiagen N.V., 2021) for the 2022 financial year and a market share of 7,7% of the German biotechnology sector (Heber, 2022), Qiagen N.V. is the largest venture in the German biotechnology industry. Besides its pure economic strength, the firm is also an excellent example for the importance of university innovation. The firm was created as a spin-off from the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Nowadays, the Qiagen N.V. is considered one of the prime role models for successful knowledge transfer from academia to industry. Another prominent and successful example of such a transition from scientific knowledge into industry and society is the BioNTech SE. Interestingly, this company was founded with a very different strategic mission as compared to their activities to date. Starting with the idea to combat cancer, it is now the second biggest biotechnology company in Germany with a market share of 5,0% (IBISWorld, 2022). The BioNTech SE achieved record-breaking sales of 18.976 billion euros in 2021 (BioNTech SE, 2021), spurred by the discovery of a vaccine during the COVID19 pandemic. In comparison to 2017, their sales have grown by an average of 210.3% per year. Although the company originally started with a different idea, they were early adopters and innovators in providing the strongly needed vaccine, fostering their immense growth. As mentioned before, the BioNTech SE was also founded based on many years of research work and is an example of successful knowledge transfer from academia into industry and society. Starting with research, they are nowadays a grown multinational company that is deeply rooted in Germany’s biotechnology sector.
Biotech 4.0 and the impact on grand challenges
Right now, biotechnology research is located in a turbulent environment, shaped by fast technological change and high innovation capabilities. While digitalization can be regarded as a decisive future trend for cross-sectors, biotechnology can expect significant impacts and benefits from the digital transformation as well. Big data, e-health and bio-IT bear huge potential for the sector, also regarding intersectional cooperation with other industries. According to Heber (2022) “cooperation partners from biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemistry, medicine, diagnostics and other industry-relevant research areas are likely to benefit from synergy effects in the R&D pipeline in the life sciences through innovative IT-based applications.” Decisive potential stems from growing data intelligence regarding research on diseases empowering the red biotechnology. Larger data availability is expected to improve diagnostics through innovative methods in sequencing, allowing the identification of new diseases and better diagnostics. The expected progress sees biotechnology innovations as an important contributor to tackle the SDG Nr. 3. More precisely, this is to improve health and well-being throughout the world. The white biotechnology sector expects an increased application of their methods in the future, resulting in an increased demand of organic raw materials. Since the major suppliers for these organic raw materials are actors within the green biotechnology, they will need to find the right balance between supplying organic materials to the white biotechnology and simultaneously delivering food and feed within their own field. Hence, high adoption rates of green biotechnology and more sustainable agriculture are needed and expected in this sub-sector. Thus, a high interdependence of white and green biotechnology is more than likely. The green biotechnology aims on improving plant breeding through more efficient, faster and more sustainable planting methods thereby contributing to the SDGs Nr. 2 (Zero Hunger), Nr. 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and Nr. 13 (Climate action). If you want to find out more about the most important emerging trends in biotechnology, check out the video below:
As with all areas in life, there are some major concerns and unresolved issues in biotechnology too. These mainly arise from ethical questions regarding genetic engineering. This is especially the case in European countries, as potential health and environmental risks through green genetic engineering cannot be neglected to date. Therefore, biotechnology is facing the conflict of an ethical, yet sustainable future development. One of the most important questions is how we can design the integration and participation of emerging and developing countries into the worldwide biotechnology ecosystem. In summary, biotechnology faces challenges and unresolved questions. These are mainly depending on ethical standards but also on the scientific output, the reliability and the impact of academia. Historically, scientific contributions demonstrated to be a decisive driver in solving societal problems, including radical changes in diagnostics, treatments, eradicating diseases and securing food supply. Therefore, it is no surprise that biotechnology scientists’ academic engagement is larger as compared to other scientific disciplines (Thursby and Thursby, 2011). Prospectively, a growing academic engagement from universities and scientists is likely. As both sides – academia and practitioners – require collaboration, the transfer of academic knowledge to industry and society might be one of the keys to overcome the grand challenges of our time. To efficiently tackle the SDGs and conduct more meaningful research, open science efforts and cross-national academic engagement is required and inevitable.
Health Science: an emerging and decisive research discipline
The second research discipline that I would like to highlight in this blog entry is a rather young and interdisciplinary one. The health sciences are a comparatively new discipline in the academic world. In Germany, the University of Bielefeld was the first one to institutionalize health science. By launching the faculty of health sciences, they were the first German university to introduce this discipline into the academic world in 1994. Nowadays, the health sciences are a good example for transferring knowledge via academic engagement into an impactful outcome (Upton et al., 2014). Nevertheless, the academic engagement in the health sciences is still lower in comparison to other disciplines, such as Biology or Chemistry (De Fuentes & Dutrénit, 2012). Regarding the transfer and especially the commercialization of knowledge, the lower transfer-rate from this field is not a novel finding. The lower academic engagement and especially the lack of commercialization in the health sciences is historically well explained, as the overarching goal has always been the reduction of human suffering and the increasing of well-being instead of pursuing entrepreneurial interests (Phillips & Garman, 2006). Albeit there is an ongoing discussion about the width and depth of knowledge transfer in health sciences, clarity remains about the future role of this research field. More precisely, it is forward-looking and one of the most critical areas of medical development. Consequently new research projects and chairs are emerging in the academic world. Thus, various knowledge transfer activities are developing, although this discipline has not yet been deepened into knowledge transfer research (Iparraguiree 2018; Rinsche 2017; Elton & O’Riordan 2016). Therefore, new emerging knowledge can be expected, yielding great benefits for the society and bearing innovation potential alike. Before analyzing the impact of knowledge transfer in health sciences, let us first have a look at the research field per se.
Health science: what is what?
According to the federal German center for health education, health sciences include the following fields (Bundeszentrale 2022; https://www.leitbegriffe.bzga.de/alphabetisches-verzeichnis/gesundheitswissenschaften-public-health/):
Health and nursing sciences: All aspects of nursing and geriatric care are considered, as well as the impact of illness or disability on a person’s life.
Medicine: Medicine is concerned with the identification of the causes of disease and the cure, alleviation and prevention of disease in humans and animals.
Biomedicine, Neuroscience: Biomedicine uses scientific methods at the molecular level to investigate medical issues. Methods of DNA analysis or cell biological procedures play an important role.
Therapy: Non-medical therapies deal with the restoration of psychological or physical functions in humans and with questions of therapeutic action.
When examining the impact of health science, the most prominent example of both, capabilities as well as the limitations of this field, is again the COVID19 pandemic. While especially the medicine has played an important role on identifying and curing this newly emerged disease, the pandemic has also shown the large challenges of health science. Especially about the health and nursing resources, many countries have suffered tremendous shortcomings in resources, nursing staff and hospitalization capacities. Further, socio-demographic external factors such as aging societies increase the pressure as well as the importance of this research discipline. It is no surprise, that these challenges are also reflected in the SDGs. More precisely, the SDG Nr. 3 identifies a halted progress in universal health coverage, increasing deaths from tuberculosis and malaria and lack of basic vaccines among 22.7 million children. Moreover, there is the paradox that health care workers, as the most important group for combating the pandemic, suffered massively from the consequences of COVID19 at the same time. This is reflected in the deaths of 115,000 health care front workers throughout the pandemic.
To date, the health sector is mainly dependent on the socio-demographic structure of a society, the health expenditures, the health awareness, the production capabilities of pharmaceutical products as well as the access to medical devices. Further, the vocational training as well as the availability of health care workers are major success factors determining the medical capabilities within a country. Accordingly, main activities in this area are medical consultation and treatments, managing hospitals, medical as well as physiotherapeutic practices.
Health sciences in conflict between commercialization and societal need
Today, the health sciences face major challenges. Due to complex supply chains and high production of medical care, as well as an increasing shortage of skilled workers, the actors are facing major economic challenges. Yet, healthcare simultaneously fulfils an essential role in the prevention of disease, becoming one of the most important contributors of societal health improvements. As a result, societies are directly involved in scientific innovation and require such innovation alike. This demand has also been recognized by the UN, which therefore aims to improve health care. Furthermore, the UN also recognizes inequality in medical care as a central problem. Hence, it is essential for the health sciences to optimize medical care and simultaneously reduce the unequal distribution. This unequal distribution can be seen quite frequently today. This is not only visible in international comparisons between developing, emerging and industrialized countries, but also within countries. One major challenge, for example, is the inequality of medical care between urban and rural areas.
Regarding knowledge transfer, the health care sector has experienced tremendous innovations via intra-organizational knowledge sharing, especially in hospitals, universities or clinics (Boore & Porter, 2011). In other words, the health care sector is dominated by innovation within existing structures, also considered as intrapreneurship (Hisrich, 1990). Contrary, less has been done to transfer knowledge from universities or hospitals outside of their structures. Although efforts have been undertaken to integrate innovation and transfer into medicine and health sciences, the impact on ubiquitous challenges has not yet been efficient. To overcome this problem, several companies such as Amazon, Google or Microsoft try to bridge the gap between health sciences and entrepreneurial activity by launching new ventures (Suryavanshi et al., 2020). One potential success factor is the introduction of integrated teaching and learning programs combining entrepreneurship and health related research as well as consultation of health entrepreneurs and academics.
Where do we go next?
Before we reach the end of this blog entry, I would like to share two examples of successful knowledge transfer with you. Both examples illustrate the relevance of knowledge transfer and the great potential that can arise from a successful transition.
A research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg developed synthetic fuels that can be used to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from cars, aircraft and even ships. The scientists thus provide an important basis for mitigating the climate crisis and initiating an energy turnaround. Delivering synthetic fuels is particularly efficient in areas that are difficult to electrify else, such as for example shipping and aircrafts. However, as we are still depending on these forms of mobility climate friendly solutions are needed. The Fraunhofer research team impressively demonstrates how such change can help to mitigate the climate crisis by introducing solutions towards the reduction of local emissions.
A second promising, as well as successful example of knowledge transfer from the health sciences gained popularity and attention in Darmstadt in 2020. A research team at the Darmstadt Technical University developed a method that can be used to detect corona viruses in wastewater. In this way, the scientists were able to determine at an early stage how widespread corona viruses are in a community or a city. The research team thus made a decisive contribution to the development of an urgently needed corona early warning system. The team managed to establish a measurement of viral genome (RNA) in the wastewater and thereby predicting faster detection of infections in specific areas. The procedure was especially helpful for several reasons. Firstly, virus mutations that have not yet been clinically detected as well as local mutation clusters could be identified earlier. Secondly, the research team showed the efficiency and the impact of transferred university innovation to tackle a global pandemic through the establishment of their early warning system.
Congratulations for following us to the end of this article and thank you for joining our journey on the investigation of biotechnology and health sciences. Specifying the contribution of academia is never easy, yet it is important to underline its impact. If you would like to share your own opinion on the SDGs and the role of biotechnology and health sciences, feel free to check out @GlobalGoalsUN on Facebook and Twitter or share your personal thoughts via #GlobalGoals.
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