Gene Diplomacy & the United States of Bio.

A doublet and hose guide to the intrigues of international Bio relations.

Julian Louis Borra
Oct 26 · 16 min read

What have the machinations and artful courtly subterfuges of someone like Isabella D’Este in the 16th Century court of Mantua got to do with the burgeoning bioeconomy?

How does Shakespeare help us to better shape a more fruitful and mutually beneficial sphere of Life Sciences in which everyone can benefit? What have the origins of modern diplomacy to teach us about the foundations of a stable and secure federation of states focused on one pure global bio goal?

To answer these questions, let’s start with a master of the more intimate and layered human aspects of the diplomatic arts.

Guiles and Wiles

If we air-lifted Isabella D’Este and her highly nuanced courtly web of intrigues, machinations, and strategies out of the city-state of 14th and 15th century Mantua and into the scrum of the excitable and sharp-elbowed frontier spirit that is the global life sciences today, she’d probably feel quite at home.

The audacious shifts, plays, intrigues, lobbying, alliances, and bold self-interest already being demonstrated in both the darker and lighter corners of the global bioeconomy are, in their human essence, no different to those that were inextricably woven into the courtly influence and the advancement of familial interests across multiple Renaissance city-states.

Isabella’s multiple and highly interdependent positions and interests — as a woman, the co-ruler of Mantua, the wife of a Gonzaga Prince, as a D’Este by birth, and in her role as the shadowy go-between in the constantly volatile and fragile state of negotiation of power between the Gonzaga and the Borgia — would have well prepared her for what lies ahead for the players in the bioeconomy. In both spheres, the prizes are breathtaking — intellectually, financially, reputationally, politically, and materially — and the risks and threats all too real.

It is this deft balance of covert soft power intimacies and deeply personal alliances combined with the more overt and immutable power plays of aristocratic position, familial status, and courtly leverage that makes Isabella a more contemporaneous and relevant example for us to observe and study.

The fact that she was a woman in a patrilineal world compelled her to lead from the shadows’, treading a perilous and often morally ambivalent border between a covert, collaborative, alliance-based, and emotionally led self-interest with the more traditional rationalist, assertive and absolute application of power to shape her world and that of her family and court. It is this layered complexity that feels far more aligned with the modern concepts of ethical dilemma in technology and science, and the influences of Female Competitive Advantage and collaborative leadership, with its very strong accent on the more human aspects of the relationships that create the real fabric of power and influence.

So, other than allowing us the simple joy of just for one moment imagining all the high-profile players in the global bioeconomy playing out their human politick in some Shakespearean staging, trussed and fussed in finery, brocades, breeches, and bustles with a waft and dab of lead-based cosmetic for good measure…

How might this parallel serve to enlighten us?

The Court of Human Enlightenment

Paradigm Shifts in our understanding and capabilities of what is possible in the bio realm are hyper-powered by accelerated processing and the furious multiplication of collisions between science, systems, and technology.

The universe in which these collisions, intersections, collaborations, and fusions are happening is one of complex, interwoven realities, remarkable alliances, confounding collaborations, deep-rooted biases, preferential alignments, and ambitious subterfuges.

But of one thing we should be unequivocally clear.

It is for this reason that I feel we should adjust our rear-view mirror, and peer backward for a moment, most specifically towards the courtly machinations of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

The ascendent humanities of the Renaissance were both an input to and an outcome of an epoch of massive social change that placed the city states’ courts at a major pivot point in the evolution both of western civilisation and our human trajectory. Protagoras, a philosopher cited as a catalyst of the Renaissance’s humanistic sensibility asserted that:

Man [humanity] is the measure of all things

In the sphere of the bioeconomy, it is indeed the exclusively human assessment, measure, and reapplication of natural orders and systems that we are focused on [unless the existence of a bio-geneticist from another biological genus has passed me by]. It is fair to presume that this focus on humanism and the moral and ethical aspects of humanism would be very much alive in the statecraft being put to use in and around the courts of the City-States in the Quattrocento and beyond:

The term studia humanitatis took on a variety of meanings over the centuries, being used differently by humanists across the various Italian city-states as one definition got adopted and spread across the country. — Wikipedia

It is this pre-enlightenment humanism, the living culture of it, that feels so much more fitting to the volatile trajectory of the bioeconomy and its massing throngs of interdependent and interconnected interest and participation.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The Stuff of Life

Human nature, especially that applied in the spheres of power, influence, dynastic claim, and position, though often shocking or repellent, is, in narrative terms, utterly mesmerising and compelling to observe and report. In Shakespeare’s day, those reports were not always confined to a tacit communique sealed with ambassadorial wax.

In Shakespeare’s time, the Practice of Embassy was seen as a conflicted and colourful realm in which the ambassador was either:

  • a pimp in pursuit of honourable spying,
  • an honest ‘man’ sent to lie abroad
  • or an angel, someone of irreproachable fidelity who practiced a healing art.

In his popular representations of human nature at work in a complex world of power broking, sharing, and negotiation, Shakespeare put diplomatic theory live on stage — and enabled ordinary people to understand the immediate political consequences of diplomats getting things right or wrong.

I believe that the staging of these dramatic consequences might offer us an intriguing insight as to how one might engage a slightly more realistic and less naïve model of governance and steerage for the bioeconomy.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

My reason for drawing Shakespeare into our sphere of reference reaches far beyond my quiet need to get out the dressing-up box of doublet, hose, ruffs, and ornamental codpieces. It also reaches beyond the obvious observation that Shakespeare uses the courts of the Italian city-states as a backcloth to his dramatic art. My reason for drawing him in is in respect to how Shakespeare’s plays have been used over time by leading minds in the refinement of statecraft as referential texts to explore the nature of both strategic excellence and moral clarity in diplomacy; and also, in how they might also allow practitioners to illuminate and interrogate certain academic and theoretical contradictions or conflicts one might encounter in the undertaking of statecraft.

In her paper Shakespeare’s Diplomacy: A European language in conversation with the World Nathalie Rivere de Carles states:

The symbiotic relationship of theatre and diplomacy extends to the analytical level. Plays are not only an instrument of representation of diplomacy for an audience. Shakespeare’s plays with their multiple layers, characters and spaces, and their elastic sense of time became a language to untangle diplomatic complexity: a practice shared by diplomatic and nondiplomatic actors which started in Shakespeare’s own time and developed throughout the centuries.

Dramatic structure and the actions and predations of tyrants, mad kings, deviant princes calculating consuls and murderous queens may seem a world away from the diplomacy of the bioeconomy as imagined in an OECD report — but I would suggest that the diplomacy and the machinations of the post-medieval courts as conjured by Shakespeare are far more instructive and illustrative of the intentions and actions of individuals and cabals when in close proximity to the degrees of power, influence and financial gain that the bioeconomy will surely offer.

At this point, it is worth us expanding on the scale of opportunity offered by the bioeconomy over the next decade, especially to those who might seek to monopolise or appropriate vast swathes of the gifts and gains of it.

In a recent McKinsey report the bioeconomy is projected [conservatively] to be worth in excess of $4trillion dollars per annum for upwards of the next 20 years. Compound that and you end up with a bloc value in excess of the USA and China’s combined GDP within 5 years.

This is not to claim that all participants in the wider bioeconomy are Shakesperean in their degrees of venality and self-interest. But to deny the role of supreme ego in the shaping of something like the bioeconomy would be a dangerous act — and the diplomacy that steers it must account for the worse as well as the best of our humanity if it is to be both robust and resilient enough to stay the course.

The other gift a reference to Shakespearean dramatic staging brings is that of people — audience. A healthy society is reliant on ordinary people having both an understanding of and agency in their society. There is a lesson in the playwrights’ need to communicate the complex intrigues of a rare few in such a way as to allow the cautionary lessons to be enjoyed and learned by the many. Keeping the general public informed and enlightened to the ebbs and flows of what is being done in their name is vital to the success of the bioeconomy.

The form of diplomacy constructed to serve the bioeconomy MUST serve humanity first and foremost. It must understand the nature, sanctity, and priority of the social contract that must exist between science and humanity. We cannot entrust this task to those either deaf to the will of ordinary people in regard to what is done in their name; dumb in the face of blatant plays and intrigues that are patently predatory, self-interested, and not serving the mutual public good; or blind to miscarriages of justice, toxic brokerage of precious materials and data or acts of strategic or material aggression that might degrade, damage, suppress or contravene best and most mutual outcomes.

The Diplomatic Art

What’s in a word? When it comes to diplomacy itself, everything.

Though sufficient for the needs of white papers reports and such, referring to the complex art of negotiating mutual benefit in the bioeconomy as biodiplomacy would, I believe, start us in the wrong place. The bio prefix places the source code of the nature of the diplomacy in the science, technology, and systems of engineered possibility.

Three-Dimensional Landscape of Genome. HIPMap (high-throughput imaging position mapping) accurately determines the position of a gene in the three-dimensional (3D) space of the cell nucleus. In this illustration, images of genes (red, green, and blue spots within the nuclei of HeLa cells) are artificially superimposed on images of multi-well plates. Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Genes are the building blocks of the living systems and natural orders that the bioeconomy seeks to identify, interrogate, elevate, subvert, synthesise and propagate. Equally, Genes are what people speak of in their ordinary lives when touching even vaguely on some of the sciences that underwrite things like ancestry or vaccines. The language of any diplomacy must be rooted in the source code of our humanity — the genes themselves.

Framing it as Gene Diplomacy as opposed to biodiplomacy will, I believe, start the conversation where it needs to start –in the shared insight, wants, needs, desires, aspirations, visions, and ambitions of those whose interests should be at the heart of the bioeconomy — people.

This also then sets a tone for the degree to which we design and account for the ‘animal spirits’ of science and technology — the random, often irrational, and volatile nature of people’s response to risk and gain. This in turn requires the design of the Gene Diplomacy to take a slightly more earthy and less elevated intellectual view of the people in its sphere of influence.

It is the wiles, caprices, entitlements, envies, and rancours that populate the shadows and corners of these human ambitions that will need the deftest and shrewd negotiating.

The science is not the source of politicking and subterfuge.

The science is not the source of ill-met alliances and spurious collaborations.

The science is not the source of marginalisation, abuses, disempowerment, profiteering, insurgency, and selfish action undertaken under the guise of science and progress.

Therefore, the diplomacy required to comprehend, order, manage, navigate, steer and secure the best possible outcomes in the exponentially expanding universe of bioeconomy must be rooted in human truths and terms, not scientific ones.

It is in the realm of this intimate human truth that the parallels between the 21st-century bioeconomy and i] the diplomatic craft of the city-states and ii] the Shakespearian framing of humanity as a conflicted and turbulent work-in-progress finds its greatest potency.

The modern concept of diplomacy, its corps, and the nature of its training and disciplines have become to a greater degree a matter of academic pursuit, strategic prowess, and intellectual position in the sphere of international relations. It is in the elevation of the art that perhaps we should be concerned. The higher up the intellectual ladder we go, the further away from the base human drivers we get — and I would venture that creates blind spots, substantial ones, that, given the breath-taking global impacts and social effects of the more audacious life sciences, might lead to all kinds of catastrophic outcomes if left unfettered and unaccounted for.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

In using a dramatic [Shakespearean] and historic [15th Century Courtly diplomacy] framing we move ourselves closer to the nature of diplomacy being deployed in a less polished theoretical political environment. The diplomacy of the city-states reveals the venal, the proprietary, the underhand, the deeply self-interested, and sleights and maneouvers of human beings at their most unvarnished.

The Gene Diplomat

So, to this practitioner of irreproachable fidelity and their healing art.

Having set some broad context at least for the theatre of engagement and the byzantine nature of the myriad actors, agents, entities, interests, and agendas involved; the framing of their actions in humanistic, not scientific terms; the need for non-partisan stewardship and steerage; and the ‘for the people’ nature of their focus, let’s now explore some of the functional aspects of the Gene Diplomat a little more

The Gene Diplomat will need to be able to contain and conjure an audacious breadth and depth of understanding and knowledge both from within and without their core discipline. [I imagine the Gene Diplomatic Corps to primarily be drawn from the professions of the life sciences, law, politics, humanities, finance, investment, and economics.]

Photo by adrianna geo on Unsplash

They will need to become fluent to a greater degree in the languages of the states to which they are sent. This is in itself critical to enabling everyone involved to not become embroiled in a muddle of Babel-like proportion.

The ‘language’ of a global genome council is very different to that of a Global Financial Investment Firm or a Local [National] Research Institution numbering its campus population in the thousands, all of which are, in turn, markedly different again to a specialist multinational genome sequencing organisation in the private sector. The art of the Gene Diplomat will to some degree lie in their ability to meaningfully interpret the language of one to the benefit of the other.

Jargon, ‘Speak’ and cliquey tongues are the death of openness and clear council and need to be avoided through the definition and application of one universal diplomatic language with a fixed lexicon to draw from.

The Gene Diplomat will also need to be able to call upon an irrepressible and relentlessly applicable strategic empathy — one that allows them to view quite different perspectives, priorities, and ambitions in such a way as to broker productive and secure alliances between the humanist cause and the scientific endeavor. In this faculty exists the irreducible ethical foundation of the Gene Diplomat’s systemic purpose and humanitarian cause. It is the nature of expansive and relentless scientific progress to reach beyond the norms of what is known and accepted to decipher what might, could, and will be. But in doing so scientists are expected to both test and ‘lose’ the edges of what humans currently understand and, more importantly, desire. In doing so, in accelerating far beyond what the ordinary person knows, lies a danger of over-reach — of traveling not only beyond what humanity knows but also beyond what humanity desires and aspires to — and ultimately will accept as a state of being.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

In that, the Gene Diplomats' task is to act as a counterweight to the dizzying elevator of leading biotech advances and breakthroughs.

The Issuing State

The final piece in this diplomatic jigsaw for me lies in issuance.

All models of diplomacy require two parties or entities between which the diplomacy is exercised. To that end, there needs to be an issuing or sending state — that state which seeks to represent itself and its interests to best outcome in the halls of another state’s power and influence. And there needs to be a receiving state or states.

The receiving state in this instance is the loosely federated alliance of multiple states of shared interest and action. Science, Technology. The Public & Private Sectors. State and Global Actors. Global Research and Local Clinical Application. Private and Public Health Representatives. Regulatory Bodies both National and International, Legal Representatives and Frameworks spanning both Criminal and Civil Courts of Appeal and Judgement — a coalition of the bio willing that I’ll call the United States of Bio.

The defining nature of the Sending state is where I think we can test the edges of the world’s intentions in relation to biotech.

The bioeconomy is already populated by an extraordinary spectrum of actors with very particular, singular, and sometimes contradictory or conflicting agendas, all the while engaging in ‘collaborative’ initiatives, partnerships, and exercises to further the coalition aims.

Photo by Robin Kutesa on Unsplash

It is for that very reason and the collective might of these United States of Bio that I would suggest that the sending state must be both independent and benign.

I believe that the diplomatic machinations and complex negotiations and passages of point and counter-point should all be in service to the greater good of humanity — its progress, improvement, and mutual benefit.

This belief also leads me to posit that if a specific globally recognised diplomatic corps were to be recruited to fill the office of Gene Diplomacy they would need to be a diplomatic corps aligned with a humanitarian or non-partisan organisation or institution.

The End of the Beginning

The breath-taking possibility and tools of exceptional human resilience invested in the bioeconomy demand that we do not walk lightly into the affairs of its diplomatic engagement, steerage, and securing. Consensus and mutuality must run like red threads through every dimension and layer of it, and the chiaroscuro of human intention and character is both allowed and designed for in its statecraft.

Gene Diplomacy — a global, universal and humanitarian diplomatic practice shaped as much by Shakespeare and the gilded courtly intrigues of Isabella D’Este as it is by the teachings of Ranke, the theoretical alumni of Castlereagh’s diplomacy by conference and Kissinger’s RealPolitik — would be received at these United States of Bio, practicing their statecraft at its dizzying intersections: of nation-states and world ambitions; public and private interests, martial law, spiritual suffrage, matters of status and advancement, volatilities of national and regional sentiment, transient and often fragile alliances, the dynamics of social contracting, merchant zeal, trading of rare and wonderous commodities, all manner of governance challenges, the politics of financial investments and gain, fiduciary pressures, opportunity to control through regulatory leverage, the issue of intellectual property rights, and the nature of the robust, resilient and far-reaching legal frameworks required to underwrite and secure all of the above.

Suffice to say the intention here is to put an idea in the world — to venture it, and to do so on the basis of making better outcomes for everyone, not just a select few. In the development of this article, a number of wider questions have already been raised, questions that will need considering, strategically, systemically, operationally, and most importantly, ethically:

  • Does every nation get its own diplomat?
  • Where will the United States of Bio be based?
  • Will they exist in tandem with other international bodies like the WHO, the EU, and the UN or separately?
  • Is their work focused on effecting change in the culture or on the legislative front?
  • What power do we allow them to have?
  • How do they navigate the creation of biotech that is done across the government, academia, and private industry?

It is the provoking of more questions such as these and with a more realistic acceptance of the role of human flaw and fallibility in the pursuit of greatness that we will auger a healthier trajectory for the bioeconomy.

About the Author

Julian Borra is a creative writer working in the commercial communications industry, with a particular passion for using creativity to make complex things simple, most particularly in the sustainability, tech, and science spaces. Long term projects include shaping a more inclusive and aspirational sustainability conversation, most particularly through his work with Peggy Liu on her China Dream project, as well as his continuing works as the Lead Creative Strategist on Socialising the Genome, a Wellcome Connecting Science & Genomics England Initiative, now entering its next major phase of works centred on Engaging the Disengaged to create a fairer, more inclusive healthcare future.

Julian also writes the odd book, having co-authored Liferider, a NYT Bestseller, with Laird Hamilton, legendary big-wave surfer, and waterman amongst other things.

To find out more about Julian and his work connect with him out on LinkedIn or go to

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