Lab Space vs. Outer Space
Now compare this to biotechnology: many can be scientists, engineers, professors, and technicians, but high schools rarely do distinctive projects of this sort, and research is seen as a private, mundane activity. Biotechnology is inclusive when it comes to professionals, not public relations, and bioengineers are often expected to produce a nasty lab accident rather than a healthier form of rice.
Space experiments are fun, cool, and contribute to the future of the space program. How about something similar for biotechnology? The rise of synthetic biology and the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competitions have started to bring biotechnology projects to undergraduates, high schoolers, and the public.
Even so, biotechnology could still use a face lift. Perhaps that will come in the form of media-friendly shared labs, where ideas from enthusiasts could be safely developed and tested with regular publicity.
Furthermore, a far-reaching, readily-visible project could be initiated: The human genome project was a triumph, but how about energy generation or garbage disposal? The appeal of space experiments is partly founded in the idea that humanity will establish self-sufficient, extraterrestrial colonies to preserve the species. In the meantime, though, Earth is the only independent space station we have, and preserving it is at least as important an objective.
Furthermore, biotechnological advances in sustainability, efficient production, and environmental engineering could be used to help space programs build a self-sustaining space station, and space stations can be used to carry out experiments with extreme isolation by ensuring that escaped organisms will receive lethal doses of solar radiation and vacuum.
Consider that the Department of Energy received $1.6 billion (in 2011) for renewable energy and efficiency research, of which only $0.2 billion went to biomass R&D. When that $0.2 billion is compared to the $2.5 billion NASA has for space exploration R&D, it suggests that bioengineering needs a central champion to back more ambitious projects. If NASA can provide a single focus (space exploration) to take on the biggest engineering challenges (preserving humanity), why can't biotechnology do the same?