BioWorld International Correspondent

COLERAINE, Northern Ireland - Biotechnology in Ireland looks set to gain a seat close to the government table. At the BioIreland 2004 conference here Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney told delegates that the administration would appoint the government's first-ever chief science adviser this week.

A spokeswoman for Harney told BioWorld International the identity of the appointee would be revealed today, but Barry McSweeney, director general of the European Union Joint Research Centre (JRC) - the research arm of the European Commission (EC) - is expected to get the post. McSweeney, who has headed the JRC since 2001, is a veteran of efforts to commercialize biotechnology research in Ireland. He was inaugural director of BioResearch Ireland, a state-backed technology transfer organization, from 1987 to 1995. Since then, he has worked his way to the top of the EC's research administration.

The JRC, which comprises seven research institutes located in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, has 2,400 people on the payroll and an annual budget of €300 million. Last year, it established a Europe-wide network of GMO laboratories for enforcing EC regulations on genetically modified food.

Speaking at the meeting, McSweeney said Europe must embrace large-scale scientific research more positively and cast off its negative image toward biotechnology.

"I am absolutely convinced that Europe needs some big science," he told delegates. "Europe has been more characterized by, Let's ban GMOs, let's regulate stem cells upwards and downward.'" He said large-scale "framework projects" likely will be a feature in the next round of EC research funding, the Seventh Framework Program, which begins in 2007.

Harney, increasingly seen as a national and European champion of biotechnology, was critical of the European Union's research and innovation performance.

"Why is it that Europe has fallen so far behind?'" she asked. The answers lie in its approach to education, research infrastructure, research funding - even how tenure is determined in European universities, she said.

The JRC, McSweeney said, next week will unveil a major envirogenomics research initiative in the area of childhood asthma. It has kick-started a program to study how interactions between environmental and genetic factors influence the prevalence of the disease. It now is seeking participation from industrial and academic partners.

The BioIreland meeting, which concluded Tuesday, attracted delegates from five continents.