2019 Research Survey on the Bioeconomy

2019 Research Survey on the Bioeconomy

In Germany, almost 800 research institutions in the natural sciences and humanities deal with the bioeconomy. Every two years, biookonomie.de contacts these research institutes and asks them about their priorities regarding R&D, their raw materials, industrial applications, financing and number of employees. In addition to the data collected, this year six bioeconomy experts were interviewed about their assessments of the local research landscape.

Übersicht Forschungseinrichtungen zur Bioökonomie in Deutschland

The bioeconomy is a complex interdisciplinary subject with economic, social and ecological dimensions. Accordingly, research in this country is diversified. In the natural sciences, academic disciplines range from agricultural science, biotechnology, materials science and environmental technology to nutritional science. There are also research activities in the humanities such as the social sciences, economics, politics and law that are relevant to the bioeconomy.

Second survey on bioeconomy research

In order to obtain a detailed picture of the research landscape in the bioeconomy, a research survey was conducted for the second time. In 2017, the information portal biooekonomie.de published the results of the first research survey on the bioeconomy. It covered research activities undertaken in 2016. This article presents the results of the current survey on bioeconomy research in Germany. For that purpose, a total of 799 institutes at universities, universities of applied sciences and non-university institutions were identified and surveyed on their bioeconomy research activities in 2018. Around 317 institutes responded. 

Compared to the 2017 survey, the number of employees in the 317 institutes fell slightly to 31,119.  Among other things, the research institutions provided information on their budget: With a total volume of approximately 2.57 billion euros, the financial resources available to the organizations increased on 2016. In percentage terms, third-party funding became more significant for their overall budget.

An overview of the 2019 Research Survey on the Bioeconomy 

Emerging and diverse research landscape

Of the 317 responses, 80 came from non-academic research institutions, 36 from departmental research, 158 from universities and 43 from technical colleges. Thus, almost 50% of the non-academic and departmental research institutions contacted took part in the research survey, as did 45% of the technical colleges and 33% of the universities surveyed.

Number of institutions active in bioeconomy research in Germany

Throughout the Federal Republic of Germany, research institutions have established areas of study focusing on the bioeconomy. In the southwest, the University of Hohenheim has expressly dedicated itself to this field. The Technical University of Munich has set up its Straubing Campus for Biotechnology and Sustainability entirely around bioeconomy research. In the north, Leuphana University Lüneburg and the University of Hamburg focus on the bioeconomy. In East Germany, the Leibniz Science Campus Halle "Plant-based Bioeconomy" is just one organization exploring this field of research. The Fraunhofer Center for Chemical Biotechnological Processes CBP is a key player in the BioEconomy cluster, which emerged from the Spitzencluster competition. Numerous other Fraunhofer institutes carry out research relevant to the bioeconomy, such as Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Fraunhofer IGB, Fraunhofer IME and Fraunhofer IVV. In North Rhine-Westphalia, research is also carried out at the Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC). It was founded by RWTH Aachen University, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Bonn University and Forschungszentrum Jülich, which belongs to the Helmholtz Association. Several Leibniz Association institutions, such as the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB), are also heavily involved in this area of research.

The Resources of Bioeconomic Research

The bioeconomy is based on biological resources, i.e. biomass derived from plants, animals, microorganisms, fungi or waste materials. Many of the institutions surveyed stated that they used more than one type of raw material. More than half of them used plants (59%), followed by microorganisms (36.9%) and waste (35%) for their research. A total of 22.1% worked with animals, and 16.7% used fungi for their work. It is clear that the universities surveyed prefer research with and on plants. This preference was not as pronounced at the technical colleges, where waste material and microorganisms rank closely behind plants. In comparison to 2017, only research with waste materials increased noticeably - the remaining data only changed slightly.

Number of institutions by use of raw materials (total and by category)

Most of the research activities in the natural sciences related to the bioeconomy are carried out in the agricultural sciences (44.8%), followed by biotechnology and systems biology (38.2%) as well as plant and process engineering (33.1%). There are comparatively fewer activities in the fields of nutritional sciences and forestry (10.4% and 11.4% respectively) or food technology (11.7%).

In the humanities, the bioeconomy mainly plays a role in economic sciences. Of all the institutions surveyed 18.6% were active in this field. Social sciences came second (15.1%), followed by political sciences (7.9%) and law (2.2%).

Compared to 2016, 2018 saw a significant increase in the number of institutions focusing on information and communication technologies (ICT) and in particular the bioeconomy. The other natural sciences exhibited slight changes only. There has been a significant increase in bioeconomy research activities in the economic, social and political sciences.

Research focus of the institutions

The increasing interdisciplinarity in bioeconomy research was also emphasized by the group of experts interviewed by telephone. Generally, the experts welcomed the idea that the bioeconomy is becoming established in more and more subject fields and that cross-disciplinary research is increasing in popularity. Currently, many structures are still being developed. Some of the interviewees argued that basic research should not be overlooked. It is not necessary for every project to concentrate on social science.

Third level: New courses of study developed

The bioeconomy is also gaining in importance at third level institutions. Several new academic courses have been developed in recent years. The Technical University of Munich, for example, is offering a Bachelor's degree in "Bioeconomics" from winter semester 2019/20 on the Straubing campus in addition to established courses such as "Renewable Resources". The University of Hohenheim and five other universities in Paris, Bologna, Vienna, Wageningen and eastern Finland have even set up a "European Bioeconomy University".

According to the statements of the experts interviewed, the newly developed courses have been well received. Some of the interviewees said that they were aligned with the requirements of the industry and later working life. However, there are also critical voices from research that advocate basic training in a specific discipline and only recommend focusing on bioeconomy for specialization, in the form of a doctoral thesis for example. They stated that some of the new courses have helped to reduce the shortage of skilled workers. However, there is still high demand for these in the IT, novel electrochemistry, modelling, energy and chemistry sectors.

The most important sectors for application

The highly application-oriented nature of bioeconomy research in Germany is also indicated by the answers given by the research institute to the question regarding which economic sectors are most relevant for their results. A total of 187 institutes (59%) considered agriculture and forestry to be the most important sectors for their research with a further 124 institutes (39.1%) selecting the food industry. About 98 stated the chemical sector as most relevant (30.9%), closely followed by the energy (30.6%) and pharmaceutical (29%) industries.

Assigning the institutes' main research areas to the fields of application

Compared to 2016, agriculture and forestry are gaining traction. The food and chemical industries have become increasingly relevant for bioeconomy research, as have the consumer goods and construction industries.

The significance of the bioeconomy for industry was also emphasized in the interviews with the experts. The bioeconomy could help reduce waste and offer opportunities for new and optimized production processes. In addition, small and medium-sized companies in particular could benefit from research even with limited financial resources. According to the experts, the basis for successful cooperation  between  research and industry is stability and trust. This requires long-term and reliable collaboration. The dwindling number of university staff and the increasing administrative burden on scientific staff as a result were seen to pose a challenge for future cooperation.

International Network

At a national level, cooperation between players from research and industry is at an all-time high. But things are also progressing at a European level.

The concept of the bioeconomy was developed in the EU. Thanks to many initiatives, cooperation between European countries continues to grow. Three examples cited in the expert interviews include:

  • The EIT Food Programme – a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) set up by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). EIT Food connects consumers with businesses, start-ups, researchers and students from 13 European countries and along the entire food value chain. Specifically, it is concerned with how to reduce food waste and provide a healthy diet for a growing world population.
  • The 3BI-Intercluster involves co-operation between the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany and France are collaborating. The common incentive: to promote bio-based innovations and to facilitate access to new markets for European companies that base their business model on renewable resources.
  • In addition, there are various efforts by European universities and research centers to bring together students and teachers in Europe to train a new generation of scientists and managers in the interdisciplinary field of the bioeconomy. Several applications for funding have been submitted.

The desire to work together also extends far beyond the European borders. The Global Bioeconomy Alliance, for example, is a strategic partnership in which three universities from Germany, Australia and Brazil have joined forces. Within the alliance, knowledge and technologies are to be exchanged and new initiatives in the bioeconomy will be launched.

How experts view the development of the bioeconomy

In addition to the online survey distributed to the research institutes, six experts from bioeconomy clusters in Germany were asked by telephone how they believe the bioeconomy has developed in recent years. Ten years ago, the bioeconomy was mainly regarded as a technical matter for the agricultural industry, but the experts now view it as a definite cross-sector topic. The focus is now primarily on industrial application, especially in the context of sustainability.

The experts interviewed by telephone came from the following institutions:

  • WissenschaftsCampus Halle

  • TUM Campus Straubing

  • Bioeconomy Science Center

  • University Hohenheim

  • BioEconomy Cluster

Nowadays, industrial application and market analyses are an integral part of most bioeconomy research projects. As a result, researchers and entrepreneurs work closely together at an early stage and the potential marketability of a product or process becomes ever more important. An early analysis can identify possible difficulties or competitive disadvantages and counteract them. It would be unfortunate if promising ideas and approaches were not pursued because of a lack of foreseeable direct economic exploitation. In principle, the experts emphasize in the interviews that basic research is also necessary even without the perspective of application.

From an entrepreneurial point of view, the fall in oil prices in recent years has had an impact on the implementation of the bioeconomy.

Basic chemicals are normally produced from crude oil and are the feedstock for many other industrial products such as plastics, colorants or fertilizers. Basic chemicals can also be made from renewable raw materials. However, this is only profitable if the price of crude oil exceeds a certain threshold.

Due to low oil prices - a result of disagreements among OPEC countries and the extraction of unconventional deposits such as shale oil reserves in the USA - these major industrial applications are currently difficult to develop for the bioeconomy. The production of basic chemicals and platform chemicals based on renewable raw materials is currently uncompetitive. Many bioeconomy entrepreneurs have therefore specialized in selected value chains and have chosen niches such as specialty chemicals, cosmetics or specialty adhesives for their products. Although sustainability efforts are intended to replace petrochemical products, renewable raw materials have so far only been profitable as a basis for more valuable products.

Editors: Simone Ding (Survey and Infographics), Laura Griestop (Text/Interviews)