The U.S. has invested over two and a half times more than the EU and three European countries.

The U.S. government has spent around $430 million on research related to synthetic biology since 2005, according to the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. By comparison, the EU and three individual European countries—The Netherlands, U.K., and Germany—spent approximately $160 million during that same period.

Approximately 4% of the U.S. funding and 2% of the European funding was being spent to explore ethical, social, and legal implications (ELSI) of synthetic biology. The analysis uncovered no projects dedicated to risk assessment.

“Though the private sector is active in this field, government investments in synthetic biology are large and increasing,” comments Todd Kuiken, Ph.D., who oversaw the report. “A large portion of the U.S. funding is dedicated to biofuels research.”

In 2005, the EU along with the three aforementioned European countries were actually ahead of the U.S. in terms of funding, with about $20 million and about $5 million, respectively. While European government investment stayed about the same for the next couple of years, the U.S. government’s spending grew. By 2007, the U.S. had almost caught up with to the European level.

The next year U.S. funding skyrocketed to over $140 million, while European funding was just over $40 million. 2009 funding in the U.S. budged up a bit to $150 million or so, and this year it is down to roughly $130 million. 2009 and 2010 funding levels for Europe were approximately $70 million and $20 million, respectively.

The report follows recent success made in the area of synthetic biology. On May 20, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., created a bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

“These figures are preliminary and based on best-effort attempts to gather data from multiple government sources in the United States and Europe,” the authors write in their report. “It is hoped that this report will stimulate a broad discussion of funding levels that will lead to better estimates over time.”

Since 2006, the Department of Energy (DOE) has spent more than $700 million on synthetic biology research, but this includes a broad range of studies that are not necessarily focused on this field but linked to it. Because the DOE has not released project-by-project data on what it is funding in synthetic biology, the Synthetic Biology Project chose a conservative approach and cut its overall numbers in half. It says that the DOE is still far outspending any other agency.

Since 2005, the NIH awarded approximately $48 million in grants. As of January 2010, NSF had funded approximately $40 million in research associated with synthetic biology. Information gathered from the Department of Agriculture (DOA) suggests that it has provided at least $2.3 million in grants since 2005.

Research funding levels for the Department of Defense (DOD) are primarily classified, points out the Synthetic Biology Project. DOD reported supporting nine projects within the Naval Biosciences and Biocentric Technology Program. DARPA says that it has a synthetic biology budget of $20 million for 2011. Discussions with officials at the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the agency is spending millions of dollars to procure products based on synthetic biology.

The U.S. government is spending roughly $15.9 million on studies related to ELSI. The DOE is investing approximately $15 million in ELSI research, as indicated in the budget of the Genomic Science Program. NSF has issued grants for nine projects totaling close to $1 million. The DOA lists one project looking into ELSI issues but does not provide the funding level.

The European Commission spent close to $45 million between 2005 and 2007 on synthetic biology. About $8 million has been allocated so far, including $2 million for implications research, for the period of 2007 to 2013.

Funding of synthetic biology in the U.K. is estimated at between $30 million and $53 million since 2005. Research funding is divided among three programs: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust.

In 2008, three Dutch universities announced that over the next five to ten years they would invest a total of $90 million in centers for synthetic biology research. The three universities are the Delft University of Technology (department of bionanoscience), University of Groningen (Centre for Synthetic Biology), and the Eindhoven University of Technology (Institute for Complex Molecular Systems).

As for Germany, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, or German Research Foundation) is planning to invest approximately $3.5 million in synthetic biology.

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