LILLE, France - Although officially called the first European Biotechnology Crossroads Conference, the event is similar to the one France has been sponsoring as an annual regional biotechnology conference for years, although 2002 marks the first time it has been given the European moniker.
And perhaps that says it best, since the early theme at the conference was one of European unification - a call for a move away from country-by-country biotechnology being carried out in Europe and toward a solidified region where the science can better progress and compete with that being carried out in the U.S.
Philippe Busquin, European Union commissioner for research, kicked off the conference, speaking at the opening session on the somewhat-fragile nature of biotechnology in Europe. He said the filing of patents in the EU lags; in 2001, U.S. biotechnology was twice as developed as biotechnology in Europe; and there has been an exodus of big companies from Europe to the United States.
Busquin mapped out a four-point plan of attack. He called for more investment in research - the U.S. spends 3 percent of its gross national product on research, and that is a number to which the EU should aspire. Although Sweden and Finland already spend 3.5 percent of their GNP on research, overall Europe spends 1.9 percent, and that is not enough, he said.
He called for new scenarios for research, suggesting combining research with public health. He said there needed to be more research in genomics and nanotechnology, and he said small and medium-sized companies needed to participate to a greater extent.
European biotechnology faces a series of problems concerning regulations, Busquin said, saying there are either too many or not enough. Like the States, where a patent covers all states, an issued patent in Europe should encompass all members of the European community. When considering genomics and the rights of sequenced or partially sequenced human genes, a lesson can be learned from the U.S.
"American companies have shown we have to be precise on this," he said.
The fourth aspect of his plan focused on governments, especially concerning the areas of genetically modified foods and stem cells. While "public opinion is needed" in those areas, he said, "we can't not be able to make rules." Governments need to allow research to happen, Busquin said, reminding those listening that "research, like art, is free."
The idea of research is free, perhaps, but the process of doing it is not. To combat that, the 6th Framework Program for Research will dole out billions of euros to fund research in the European Union - a healthy chunk of which, €2.25 billion, will go to genomics and biotechnology for health issues.
Philippe Amouyel, from the Institut Pasteur de Lille, spoke during a roundtable discussion titled "Toward A European Area For Post Genomics." He listed the three major genomics events in the past 10 years: the Human Genome Project, the "wedding of silica and nucleotides," and the economic challenge of biotech. The consequence of those three events, he said, were a high-throughput molecular revolution, an increase of research costs and a need for high-technology skills. Those consequences can be met through more committed funding and through the training of specialists.
Michael Morgan, from The Wellcome Trust in London, a significant funder of the Human Genome Project, spoke of the potential of genomics, but also cautioned that Europe needs reform.
The problem with genomics, he said, is that although there is much potential in the science, investors wrongly assumed a tidy profit was merely a few years away. But have faith, he said.
"I'm sure investment will come," he said. "So, hold onto those penny stocks."
In the past decade, the science gap between the U.S. and Europe has widened, Morgan said. The programs in Europe "are not science driven, and they should be," he said. "Science budgets are too small. Science is weakening vs. international competition."
Morgan called the European Research Area - the name chosen for the concept of a unified European biotechnology effort - "an idea whose time has come." The fruition of that concept would place Europe on a track to close the widening science gap, he said, and also mentioned that cooperation with the U.S. should bring about the best science.
"I'm saying we should work with the Americans, certainly not against them," he said.