BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium The European Union’s research program planned for 2002-2006, with billions of dollars of funding set aside for biotechnology, has run into a new problem. Opposition in a key European Parliament committee to research into cloning resulted in a vote that risks slowing down, or even derailing, the entire program.

The Parliament’s industry committee gave its backing to the overall plan when it met Tuesday. But it insisted on demanding an explicit ban on financing research activity into human cloning for reproductive purposes, the creation of embryos for research purposes including somatic cell nuclear transfer, and research activity that would lead to the modification of the genetic heritage of human beings.

This insistence runs head on into conflict with the view taken by European research ministers, who in January refused to include such a strict limitation when they reached their position on the proposed program. The committee’s opinion will be voted on by the Parliament as a whole early this month, and if the call for a cloning ban is endorsed, the conflict would be resolved only by a complex conciliation procedure. At best this would likely delay final adoption of the proposal perhaps until after the summer break, thus putting in jeopardy the planned October launch for the program. But at worst, if a compromise cannot be found, it could lead to the entire program being abandoned.

Just how risky the situation is has been clearly demonstrated by the fate of a separate proposal for an EU public health action program. That fell into the same trap earlier this year, and frantic attempts to bridge the gap between the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers are now under way. But the two sides failed yet again to reach an agreement on their points of difference last week, and because the conciliation procedure has tight deadlines, that means that if no solution is forthcoming by May 15, the public health action program proposal would become void.

Altogether, the industry committee is calling for nearly 100 amendments to be made to the EU’s research program, including demands for health research to be extended beyond the field of genomics, for more attention to be given to promoting basic research and space research, and for new allocations for research into health risks and health improvements.

EU Criticizes Sabotage Of Field Trials

Following the destruction of an experimental field trial with genetically modified colza in Alost, Belgium, in mid-April the latest in a series of recent attacks on field trials across Europe European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin expressed his firm disapproval of “these acts of violence.”

He said the plant trials destroyed during the attacks had been authorized by Belgian authorities and were carried out under the appropriate health and safety conditions, in full compliance with EU and local legislation. “This is an example of ignorance and prejudice leading to illegal acts of violence, that in the long run can only deny society the benefits that scientific progress will bring about,” he said.

Field research on genetically modified crops has virtually come to a halt in most EU countries, with only 88 new trials in 2001, compared to an average of well over 200 a year in previous years, and with 1,500 a year in the US. Since 1991, nearly 1,800 new trials have started in the EU. France has conducted by far the most (510), followed by Italy, Spain, UK, the Netherlands and Germany, each of which has conducted between 100 and 250. Austria and Ireland have conducted the fewest (three each).

EU Establishes Infrastructure Initiative

The European Union has set up what it calls a “European strategy forum on research infrastructures” to help boost access to major installations and facilities such as supercomputers for biocomputing, scientific cooperation networks, databases, virtual libraries and stocks of ecological reserves for biodiversity. Comprising senior national science policy figures from the 15 EU member states, the forum aims to reproduce the Europe-wide collaboration on infrastructure that has already shown benefits in the multinational agencies the EU has set up over recent years, such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

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