BioWorld International Correspondent

MUNICH, Germany - The Free Democratic Party (FDP) intends to challenge Germany's parliamentary consensus on several sensitive issues related to biotechnology.

The party, which traditionally has been friendly toward science, business and technology, maintains that Germany's relatively restrictive framework for research is leading to competitive disadvantages for the country's scientists and businesses. (See BioWorld International, May 21, 2003, and Jan. 29, 2003.)

Ulrich Flach, an FDP member of parliament and chairman of its committee on research, told German media he would press for liberalization of the laws on research with human stem cells. "At present, German researchers are in a legal gray zone about whether or not they are allowed to conduct research with embryonal stem cells in foreign countries or together with researchers in other countries."

Flach said the stem cell law of 2002 is not at all clear. "Scientists would rather forego international cooperation because they are afraid of criminal prosecution," he said.

The goal of his party's initiative is to remove the worries about criminal penalties, so that Germany can actively participate in the construction of a stem cell bank that is being planned in the United Kingdom. "We should prevent German scientists from having to leave for Britain," he said.

Flach also plans to press the government about using Germany's diplomatic posts to promote research cooperation more effectively. He cited the Swiss consulate in Boston as an example of how this work could be done effectively.

The FDP has the smallest number of representatives among the four major parties in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament that makes most of Germany's laws. Based on the size of its votes, the party's initiatives would have little chance of passage. Historically, however, the FDP often has held the balance of power between the two largest parties, which has enabled it to drive the parliamentary agenda and extract concessions from the larger parties.

Germany's parliament is enjoying its summer recess through the first week of September. The late summer often is used by German politicians to launch trial balloons and look for issues that resonate in the public for serious action when parliament returns to session in the fall.

Flach's proposals could find fertile ground, as the government searches for measures to help improve the economy. Germany, once the motor of European growth, has trailed almost all of its fellow members of the euro zone in economic growth for the past three years. Biotechnology plays a special role because Germany is the original home of chemical and pharmaceutical companies that defined the modern medical industry. If the measures introduced by the FDP emphasize the country's heritage as the former "pharmacy to the world," they have a greater chance of passage than the party's numbers in parliament would otherwise suggest.