BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The European Union¿s long march toward an overall strategy on biotechnology continues.

As Erkki Liikanen, the European commissioner responsible for business affairs, admitted Tuesday to the Assobiotech Conference on Biotechnology in Milan, Italy: ¿Until now, no coherent vision has emerged in Europe of what we want to do with biotechnology.¿

Even if there have been many policy measures to promote the safe development of biotechnology at all levels in Europe, he said, ¿It is not obvious that they present a coherent picture.¿ European investment in R&D is lagging behind the U.S., and Europe is less successful in transforming knowledge into products. Public research support is fragmented, aggravated by the low level of interregional cooperation in R&D, among companies and institutions from different regions of several states, he said.

Speaking on what he called ¿a European strategic vision for biotechnology,¿ he insisted that biotechnology be ¿decisive: what Europe cannot afford to miss.¿ There is a need for action, to ensure a competitive biotechnology base in Europe, he said.

Liikanen promised an improved European environment for biotechnology, ¿a decisive plan of action with an immediate start of implementation and a sustainable 10-year horizon,¿ and he predicted that biotechnology would contribute to making Europe the world¿s most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy within the next 10 years.

¿We now see a window of opportunity,¿ he said, since all the European Union institutions [the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament] ¿agree on the need to reflect on how Europe can reap the benefits of biotechnology.¿ He said there is now ¿broad agreement¿ on the need to develop a specific biotechnology enterprise policy for Europe.

Liikanen is working on a strategy document to be presented toward the end of this year. So far his consultations have convinced him, he said, that ¿we need to take a broad and coherent view on all interrelated subjects and avoid dealing with individual issues in an isolated way.¿ He said the discussions often have been distorted by sensitivities over details.

¿Relatively specific issues, such as controls on stem cell research and genetic engineering, have tended to dominate the debate,¿ he said. ¿Such questions are important, but Europe must also take a broad view of the life sciences and consider how we are going to use biotechnology to our best advantage.¿ Regulation ¿should not obstruct innovation any more than is necessary to achieve such protection.¿

But the commissioner also acknowledges the size of the challenge he faces. ¿This is quite a demanding task. Apart from a broad consultation, it needs to be placed high up on our political agenda,¿ he said.

Liikanen plans to provoke a major debate at the next meeting of EU industry ministers, in December, ¿with a special focus on how to enhance competitiveness of biotechnology in Europe,¿ and he aims to present a full proposal for a ¿Strategic Vision on Life Sciences and Biotechnology¿ to the summit of European Union leaders in Barcelona, Spain, in March.

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