BRUSSELS, Belgium - Contrasting European views on biotechnology received a public airing in Brussels last week at a conference on genetics organized by the European Commission.

The meeting was the first venture of the Commission's new high-level group on biosciences, which is intended "to identify hot issues and help understanding and debate between society and science," according to Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research. The exchanges did not fully answer all the questions from the public on outstanding European biotechnology debates, however.

Busquin indicated that he supports continued advances in biotechnology, which should not be a surprising remark from someone in charge of funding European Union research, but in today's confused climate in Europe, it amounts to a courageous assertion. Answering questions on the morality of research into genetics, he said: "I don't think morality can be a justification for slowing down research. Research is a fundamental freedom."

But he conceded that he could give no guarantees that there was no risk in eating GM food. "All we can say from our research so far is that no major risks have been shown from consumption of GM foods by humans. There has been extensive consumption of GM foods in the U.S. for many years with no cases of damage to health," he said.

And his answers revealed some of the continuing differences over biotechnology policy, within the EU, and beyond. "The differences in Europe about ethical questions are still large, not only between countries, but also between different citizens' groups," Busquin said. Genetic testing, for instance, is still regulated only at the national level, "and as yet there is no agreement between member states to regulate at the EU level."

Asked whether the Commission as a whole has an official position on biotechnology, he said, "We treat different aspects of biotechnology: enterprise and innovation, research, consumer protection, trade, patenting, etc. For myself, I think it is a big challenge and objective for Europe at the beginning of this new century." And asked what impact he could hope to have while the EU is in such disarray over biotechnology policy, he said: "My role is to ensure that there is an adequate scientific expertise and research for applying the precautionary principle," which he defined as requiring new research where there are uncertainties.

Victor De Lorenzo, from the National Center for Biotechnology in Madrid, Spain, vice president of the Commission's high-level group, also viewed European biotechnology research as being under threat. The current focus in public debate on the potential risks of food biotechnology was "not helpful," he said, and urged a broader public debate, so that the climate does not hinder developments affecting human health and environment. "Biotechnology needs real and enthusiastic support from European citizens, so let's do everything we can to get it," he said.