Why Biology Becomes Part of Management Science

le 16 février 2021 par

The COVID 19 crisis has put biology at the forefront of the news for several months. Let’s use this occasion to underline how essential biology is becoming for corporations, leaders, decision-makers.

You may think that for most business biology will be a marginal force or even a negligible one. Remember when people thought that the Internet was a fad, that social networks were for teenagers, that artificial intelligence was for scientists and writers of science fiction, or that climate change was mostly for political debates and for conspirators.

A major social and economic revolution will happen with biology and I want to explain why today.

Let’s remind ourselves that biology is the science that has changed the 20th century the most. Without progress in medicine, vaccines, and antibiotics, we would not have gone from a little less than 2 billion humans on the planet in 1900 to nearly 8 billion in 2000. This vast demographic growth also implies that many of today’s problems with CO2 or pollution would not exist in the same way and with the same urgency. Also, on the geopolitical front, migrations would not exist with the same intensity. And the coming wars for water would not even be discussed.

Besides biology, one can consider the telephone, the digital, the aviation, the Internet, nuclear science, the automobile as gadgets of comfort.

Biology is also the science that will shake up the 21st century the most.

Advances in biology will continue, but differently from the 20th century. The quantitative increase in population will be much more limited and not at all comparable to what we saw last century.

However, the qualitative change for living organisms will be considerable. Humans, plants, animals will be enhanced in ways hard to imagine today.

Biology, mainly because of its infancy as a science, is raising many new questions on the relationships between scientists, authorities, decision-makers, citizens.

This science will provoke significant changes in business models, product development, people management, legal systems, management models, CSR models, ethical models.

In short, and to refresh your memories, biology is the art of understanding how life works. We humans have in each of our cells 23 pairs of chromosomes; each chromosome contains between a few and a few thousand genes. We have between 20 to 23000 genes in total (although scientists do not yet agree on a number).  Mice have about the same number. So does Corn. A mosquito has about 12000. All living organisms have DNA.

Genes are coding proteins. Proteins are the engines of our development and our lives.

But Biology is not science as usual.

  • It is in infancy, and we have for instance only started to understand a very small part of the human genome
  • It allows humans to play god with genetic engineering!
  • It is extremely difficult to understand

We can see four facets to the 21st-century biological revolution:

  • Analytical genetics
  • Modifying genetics
  • Epigenetics
  • Biology based new R&D directions

Let me go through these four aspects and see their implications for society and economics, then for management, and finally for management education.

The four facets of biology and their impact on society and economics

First facet: Analytical genetics, i.e., the understanding of DNA’s dynamic

The Human DNA analysis project started in 1990. Until today it has allowed us to understand always better how our DNA is structured. Similar projects are working on identifying many living organisms’ DNAs, from plants to every species of animal.

Thanks to digital technologies and AI, the cost of DNA sequencing has been declining extremely fast, much faster than what the Moore law did for chips.

Understanding the genetic dynamics starts to allow our scientists to draw conclusions or estimates on things that could be inscribed in genes. It might have implications on:

  • Forecasting some illnesses. It might be useful for an individual’s use but also for one’s potential employer, one’s insurance company, the social security systems. It could concern, for example, the evaluation of risks (or resistance) for specific illnesses, like AIDS or COVID 19.
  • Better understanding differences between humans as for examples:
    • Resistance to pain,
    • Smaller need for sleep
    • Attributes like hair color, eye color, size, even intelligence
    • Even personality traits in some cases.
  • Selecting animal or plant species (and possibly human individuals in the future) according to the potential of their genetic heritage. Embryo sorting is de facto already an existing practice in humans.

Some social consequences could be:

  • Completely new forms of social segmentation, leading to potential segregation/ discrimination/ inequalities among individuals in face of employment, cost of social security, marriage, etc. That could profoundly transform our social relations. It could in particular and relatively fast change the insurance industry profoundly, from a solidarity institution to a niche mutual aid institution, like what has already happened with bad drivers, being pushed into a bad drivers’ niche within the car insurance market. This is not science fiction. Today already insurance companies determine premiums depending on your revealed health. Tomorrow they could determine the premiums depending on your potential health.
  • Eugenics a la 21st century via the selection at the level of the embryo.
  • The need to handle our biological data. Our digital data is already an issue. Our biological data will be an even greater one.
    • For example, China is building a country-wide DNA database, the implications for freedom, access to treatments, even jobs, could become a significant social issue.
    • The US is already using existing databases for looking for criminals.

The control of the use of these databases is still under debate and will lead to many ethical issues.

Second facet: modifying genetics, i.e., DNA modification/ Genetic engineering

Not only do we start to understand how the machine of life works, but we also begin to be able to impact this machinery and to partially modify it.

If you understand what the role of genes is, you may want to change some of them to change some of their activities.

Several techniques do exist to do exactly that. Among them, the most famous is CRISPR Cas9. It allows to cut and paste specific genes inside the chromosomes. Other methods like the Car T cells enable to take some cells out of a patient, manipulate them to make them cancer-fighting soldiers, and reinject them into the patient to fight his cancer without chemotherapy or other drugs.

However, let’s note that modifying species or even humans is not a new story. In agriculture, we have been grafting plants for millenniums for improving the species. The so-called HET, Human Enhancement Technologies, are not new. Many drugs are already transforming our metabolism in order to give us more stress resistance, more strength, etc. Since ever, humans have wanted to enhance some of their characteristics and correct some of their weaknesses. For this, they have used all possible (real and fake) drugs, all possible external instruments like glasses or hearing aid, all possible progress in technologies like aesthetic surgery.

Genetics is “just” an infinitely more powerful tool.

In today’s genetic world, genetic modification means in practice things like:

  • Genetic modifications in humans to cure rare diseases
  • Genetically engineered animals or plants for better productivity, for instance modified pigs provide already more meat, some cows could soon produce milk very close to woman’s milk.
  • Genetic modifications will be used to produce different individuals, humans or animals, more resistant to certain diseases, perhaps more intelligent, with hair or eyes of a particular color, etc. The universe of possibilities is just revealing itself to us.
  • The possible eradication or modification of certain species, for example, mosquitoes carrying Zika or Dengue or malaria.
  • The ability to make vaccines much faster
  • Maybe soon to reduce aging
  • Obviously, but that’s another topic, some genetic warfare will also come. Some conspiracy theorists already pretended Covid 19 to be a human construction.

But let’s not forget that part of this is still science fiction. The technologies are advancing fast but in an incredibly complex domain. In particular, let’s not forget that most characteristics are multi genetic and that the interaction between genes is yet largely unknown. Very few illnesses or traits seem to be monogenetic. And even for those, we don’t know yet how genes do interact with others and if a single modification may not have totally unexpected consequences. Furthermore, those gene-editing technologies are not perfect, and sometimes they don’t work as expected.

Unfortunately, some scientists are already playing god and creating situations of which we don’t know the consequences yet, for instance:

  • A Chinese doctor having engineered babies for making them immune to AIDS.
  • Several researchers are launching modified mosquitoes into the wild for eradicating some illness carrying species but without knowing all the ecological consequences of this eradication and, most importantly, not knowing if the modification could jump from one species to another.

Some social consequences could be:

·      Modified humans to have different eye colors, hair color, intelligence levels, height, various illnesses resistances, etc.

·      Segregation/ discrimination/ inequalities namely in access to treatments but also on the labor market or the marriage market

  • Creation of chimeras, i.e., animals and plants not existing today but that will be an interesting product for humans
  • Intelligent Apes
  • Different ethical approaches by countries could lead to genetic tourism as in the past we had abortion tourism and today surrogate mother tourism

For thinking about the general population adoption, an analogy should be made with cosmetic surgery. It was marginal and purely restorative surgery at its beginnings. It has become in some societies a normal activity with its marketing content and its generalization.

I regularly ask my students at Sciences Po if they are ready to use these technologies to enhance the children they will have in a few years. The answer is, first, split between a yes clan and a no clan. After discussion among the two groups of students, it appears that the yes side wins, with a simple argument the no side discovers soon: if the yes clan has enhanced children and the no clan children will not be, does it give the no clan’s children a competitive disadvantage?

Third facet: Epigenetics

Epigenetics is the science of understanding why some genes undergo mutations and what these mutations may cause. Or why some genes that were silent or inactive suddenly are switched on and become active, with possible consequences for the living organisms.

This science is not attempting to change anything here but to understand why things do change.

First, let’s remind us that all living bodies encounter many mutations during their lives and that most of them have no consequences. Just as an example, two real twins, sharing the same DNA at birth present quite a lot of differences in the old age, especially if they lived in different environment or had different life habits.

However, some genes modification actually do have an impact, provoking, in particular, some illnesses like cancers.

Scientists are working on, e.g.:

  • Understanding the links between some substances (including the so-called endocrine disruptors) and some mutations creating illnesses like cancers
  • Understanding why some of us are sensitive to some external factors and others are not.
  • Understanding better how life works when taking into account epigenetics as a modification factor. For instance, the bee larva can become a queen or a worker if you feed it with royal jelly or regular larvae food. A gene is activated or not depending on the food. In one case, a Queen is born, a relatively big animal, living several months or years and being able to give birth to larvae; in the other, a worker is born, small, sterile, and living only a few weeks.

Some social consequences could be:

For our social system, it will have serious consequences, most of them with profound legal implications.

  • Biological differences awareness could raise inequalities. We know that we are not equal in the face of health issues, but this will become more obvious and more fact-based, depending on our individual sensitivity to some external factors. Will we have a biological profile as we have a CV? Will we have to behave “accordingly” that’s to say to monitor our relationship with our environment in order to avoid dangerous situations? How legal will it become to discriminate people according to their genetic differences?
  • The burden of proof of the toxicity of a component will shift from statistical analysis (among people exposed to a specific substance more have developed a cancer than among those not exposed, but not all have developed a cancer) to scientific genetic analysis (there is a link between that substance and a specific gene explaining that those having that gene are more in danger)
  • The responsibility of a manager who will not have reacted to a specific suspicion of toxicity at a given point of time may be legally involved a posteriori if this toxicity is proven later. How long will we be able to say that we did not know, or how long will we be able to consider the probability until the fact is proven?

Fourth facet: The biology-based new R&D directions

 It is interesting to see that biology-based R&D is a very active field in sciences for several disciplines. We don’t have time to elaborate on each of them, but let’s give a few examples:

  • Stem cells research in order to regenerate or repair human organs as well as curing degenerative illnesses
  • Neurobiology and bio links between machines and brains or organs. The currently ultimate work is proposed now by the Elon Musk company Neuralink. Its objective is to link the brain to computers aiming at, e.g., helping disabled people to see, speak, even walk, etc. or enhance the brains’ capacity. But more generally this field of research is part of the neurobiology research field, trying to understand how biology works inside our brains. In this field, neurosciences and biology are two close cousins.
  • Bioengineering with DNA « printing »
  • Bio-computation, i.e., the use of cells or molecules such as DNA for computation or for data storage (A DNA structure can last several thousand years… vs. a classic hard disk that can break after a few years)
  • Bio-sequestration of CO2 by finding new biological organism able to absorb CO2
  • Bioremediation for pollution by finding new biological organism able to digest some polluters like plastics

Some social consequences could be:

  • Could the R&D effort’s discrepancies between countries lead to significant competitive advantages for countries or companies in the future? What will be the social value and the economic value of a first-mover advantage in some fields e.g. :
    • Finding a vaccine for Covid19
    • Finding a cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease
    • Finding cures for cancers
    • Developing biocomputers and bio-computer memories
  • Could the different regulations on ethics and biological R&D lead to different speeds of progress across countries, e.g., the right or not to work on stem cells?
  • The uncertainty of biological discoveries will also lead to the spread of dangerous information, real or fake. For instance, claims about a link between your genes and your political or social orientation, be it a piece of fake news or a real discovery, may harm your life in any case.

Impact on management and management science

The consequences of biological sciences progress on management will be significant even if still hard to precise today for any specific industry or company.

An analogy should be made with digital: in the 70’s we knew digital was changing the world, but we hadn’t yet seen the impact of the Internet or of Big Data or of the smartphone or of the social networks.

We can also make an analogy with Ai. In the 2010′ we knew Artificial Intelligence was changing the world, but we just start today to see its implications on our society.

Genetics is not yet considered as a major change, but it does not require to be a great futurologist to know it will revolutionize our world much more than digital or AI did.

Let’s note that all industries are concerned but for different reasons:

  • Some because it represents for them major opportunities, like the pharma and medical sector.
  • Some because it changes their business models, like for instance all human-resource based industries, including the army, where the genetics of soldiers and the genetics of war will create big challenges.
  • Some because it changes their relations to their clients and their business models, like the cosmetic industry and the agricultural industries. The insurance industry, in particular, will be impacted both in B2C because of individual risks differentiation, and in B2B when the proof of a legal issue might become genetic instead of statistical.
  • Some because they already have a competitive edge via their existing positions on the big data market like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and some Chinese companies. All of them are currently investing heavily in the biology and health fields. Biology research and development is based on massive data management and they have a competitive advantage in that field.

Let’s look at strategy, governance, and HR, three interesting angles

Strategic issues / Business models / Disruption potentials

 On the strategic front, some of the central questions will consist in understanding if biological capabilities could become a source of competitive advantage, e.g., in:

  • New product development (e.g., drugs)
  • Cost-saving or Improved quality via new processes (e.g., water treatment)
  • Productivity enhancement (e.g., animals, meat)
  • Personalization of products (e.g., drugs, cosmetics)

A way to look at strategic business opportunities could be to look at biology as one looked at AI. In a way:

  • DNA discoveries are the equivalent of Big Data explosion in the early 2000
  • AI applications are an indication of future Biological intelligence application, i.e., the ability to use the data of DNA to create applications. AI was the ability to use big data. AI algorithms helped to reduce the cost of evaluations, previsions, estimates, and to develop new products. Biology will use its own big data and its own algorithms to reduce the cost of prediction and to develop new products.

Implications are clear: many opportunities have to be developed yet. We have just scratched the surface. Contrary to digital, where the applications were simply to reduce transaction costs, and in analogy to AI, where we had to invent new ways of using data, biology has to develop its own Big Data codification, its own algorithms, and therefore to invent new ways of using this new knowledge.

This situation will lead to many disruption possibilities, for example:

  • There are relatively low barriers to entry in biology, and this opens the floor to disruptions, potential misuses, potential harmful usages
  • Traditional molecules in the pharma industry might become obsolete or much less profitable
  • The GMOs will increasingly face public acceptance issues
  • Epigenetics impact of materials and components (asbestos, micro-particles, polluted air, chemicals, etc.) will raise new insurance and responsibilities issues
  • Brand reputation might be seriously harmed because of new discoveries in epigenetics
  • Data ownership and use will lead to new regulations.

Governance issues and Decision-making issues

Genetics will require major changes in business models, legal systems, compliance systems, management models and therefore decision-making models

Some implications for the board of directors and the executive team:

  • Overseeing ethical issues related to biology (on the same model as what they need for AI issues) will be a must.
  • Creating clear ethical guidelines and modifying them accordingly with the progress of sciences, particularly around the precautionary principle, is not an option.
  • Revising business relations with clients and third parties is essential. Let’s think, for instance, on the way to price insurance premiums or to sell cosmetics.

People management and development issues

The HR issues will be extremely important but are yet a bit unclear. Some tracks can be searched, however, and studied for the near future:

  • On people, recruitment, and teams
    • Will the biological profile of individuals be considered as part of the profile in recruitment?
    • Will the working conditions have to be matched with some people profiles in order to minimize the risks (environment of air, dust, agrochemical products, etc.)? For instance, will we select people on their biological resistance before we expose them to microparticles or some chemicals? Or on their resistance to stress or to pain?
    • Will there be any impact of biology on team composition like risks compatibility, people feature acceptability, etc.?
    • Will links between genetics with competencies become scientific, e.g., punctuality, creativity, aggressivity?
  • On benefits and health plans
    • Should any segmentation be made on the basis of biological diagnostic?
    • Who will decide on who can get treatment?
    • What will companies pay for treatments? Will specific company contracts be offering new biological benefits? For the employees but also for their families? How will insurance companies respond?
  • On HR philosophies
    • Which new inequalities and injustices will appear, get revealed? How to deal with them?
    • Could some new forms of segregation appear, some biological racism?

Understanding and managing moral issues linked to biology will become part of the CHRO and the CEO’s soft skills.

Companies have not yet realized what biology may mean for them. Very few have an idea of at which horizon it should be integrated into their business strategy.

Most executives still think of it as science fiction when they think of genetics. Or they limit its sociological analysis to debates on GMOs, or medically assisted reproduction, or surrogacy reproduction. This vision is overly reductive and is focused only on crucial current social debates. As we have seen, the field of impact is much larger.

What does that all mean for management education?

Impact on management education

First, a generic remark: what is the place of science in political and executives’ decisions?

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted a particular difficulty in communication between politicians and scientists. It is not new, but the problem is exacerbated in this case by the unpredictable character of emerging scientific knowledge. Even scientists do disagree with each other! And this is particularly true in the domain of biology as was proven during the Covid 19 crisis. How, then, can one have a sound personal opinion?

Biology is still a very nascent science, far from being able to understand the twists and turns of genetic dynamics, much less to quickly build a response for instance to a pandemic.

Scientists practice systematic doubt among themselves, seek the requirement of rigor in the scientific method, accept doubt and uncertainty as so many ways to progress. Although doubt is standard in scientific research, it is seen by the general public as a sort of cacophony. The overly visible rivalries between proponents of this or that theory (remember the debates on hydroxychloroquine) is an example of the current debates. But these debates deeply trouble citizens and politicians who, in the end, no longer know which saint to devote themselves to. Citizens are likely to distrust scientists, politicians, and executives and may become less likely to listen to them. This explains partially the rise of conspiracy theories.

But the most important conclusion is that we must educate in the scientific method, and therefore understand the hazards, the uncertainties, the errors that scientists can experience.

The scientist cannot be a decision-maker; he cannot have responsibility for decisions that he himself does not understand.

On the contrary, the politician, as well as the executive, must make decisions in uncertainty, accept that he does not know but that he must decide, take risks, accept the implications of one’s decision.

More concretely still, the scientists are highly specialized, therefore relatively blind to the other disciplines and have a lot of difficulties to work in interdisciplinary domains.

The geneticist should not be asked to advise on the economic implications of containment in a time of epidemics.

Or the economists to debate about the impact on working conditions and on individual’s mental health of an increase in teleworking.

Everyone has a specialty except …. the leaders, the politicians, or the executives who must be the generalist force of synthesis. They have to take risks; they may have to dissatisfy. The leader is forced to make choices, sometimes painful and risky ones, because, by definition, they are arbitrations.

Decision-making around biology issues will be a model for developing skills on how to manage uncertainty.

Management education has to consider an understanding of biology as a must in all programs, in all disciplines, from HR to Finance.

Management education should help decision-makers to forecast and decide in a world of scientific uncertainty. That means in practice, helping them for:

  • Understanding the biological revolution potential in one’s business or one’s ecosystem, understanding where it could affect them, including those uncertainties in the strategic plans.
  • Accept that the ethical issues have to be tackled in advance and are one of their major challenges.

An analogy can be made with what happens currently with AI: professors and teachers have to become translators of the implications, and executives have to learn how to become themselves translators within their organizations. The same will happen with biology. It needs translators.


On the economic and business front: Let’s not underestimate the time horizon or the volume of the economic and social impact of the biological revolution. According to McKinsey, the bio revolution’s direct annual global impact could be $2 trillion to $4 trillion in 2030 2040. But McKinsey does not take into account the social, economic or legal costs linked to biological issues. Biology is not only an economic revolution in the making, it is a coming major social change.

On the humanity front: let’s accept to look at philosophical issues like:

  • Is progress always good?
  • Is science for science a goal, or is it science for humanity?

It is our own individual responsibility to make sure we draw the line where appropriate.

It is the executive’s responsibility to lead their organization in an ethically acceptable way. But again, let’s not underestimate the difficulty. For example, putting together an ethical committee is a daunting task from its conception, composition to its governance, power, etc.

Management education has here a significant role to play.

Some readings

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