In what was billed as a possible turnaround for Europe's chronic research funding deficit - frequently identified as a major handicap to the European biotechnology sector - European Union research ministers agreed at their Research Council meeting in Luxembourg Thursday on first steps toward developing what they term a genuinely trans-European research area.

They backed new European Commission initiatives to "benchmark" the conditions to promote European research (including public and private investment, human resources, and scientific and technological productivity) compared with conditions elsewhere in the world, and to set up an independent advisory body for research policy, including industrial research organizations. They adopted an unprecedented resolution affirming the significant role played by research and development in generating economic growth and employment. And they urged EU governments to foster investment in start-up high-technology companies.

And in a linked debate on problems in the life sciences field, the council acknowledged "the fast development of life sciences and the important role of genomics and bioinformatics for the understanding of life systems and the contribution to human welfare, through the applications of scientific progress to medicine and the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries." The conclusion was a formal endorsement of the importance of genomic research infrastructures in Europe, and consensus on the need to improve the European-wide consistency of genomics research infrastructures and their competitiveness at world level.

Ministers decided to develop a long-term strategy for coordinating support for key research infrastructures at the European level, and asked for some immediate short-term solutions it could examine later this year.

In other EU news:

¿ Germany has proposed the creation of a centralized European authorization procedure for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It made its proposal at Thursday's meeting of European Union research ministers. The German delegation argued that the current difficulties faced by European industry over the release of GMOs was an example of the inadequacy of the current framework conditions for research and development in Europe, as uncertainty acted as a disincentive to business. Germany outlined a game plan for developing a new European agency, and asked the European Commission to develop the idea into a full and formal proposal.

¿ The European Commission's advisory group on ethics in science and new technologies is drafting a report on the ethical aspects of human stem cell research and uses. As part of its preparations, it is to hold a seminar in Brussels on Monday, featuring scientists, lawyers, philosophers and representatives of patient, industry and religious groups and the European Parliament. Speakers include the group's president, Noelle Lenoir; Outi Hovatta, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden; Didier Houssin, of the French grafting institute; Alastair Campbell, of Bristol, UK; and Ian Kennedy, chairman of the UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

¿ Following the furor over the planting of unauthorized genetically modified seeds in Europe as a result of contaminated seed imports, the European Commission said Thursday it was planning to adopt new rules by December to prevent any repetition. "The commission intends to establish conditions concerning the adventitious presence of genetically modified seeds in seed lots of traditional plant varieties," it said in a statement to the European Parliament. The new rules will take the form of amended annexes to the EU rules on marketing of seeds. Pending the changes in EU rules, the commission continued, it is up to the EU member states to assess the risk of the possible presence of unauthorized genetically modified material and, in cases of suspicion, to carry out testing and follow-up. The commission also confirmed in another statement to the Parliament that no genetically modified cotton varieties have yet been authorized for marketing in the EU. Two applications, for insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cotton, are currently blocked in the EU authorization pipeline.

¿ The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, which will launch its biopharmaceutical companies section Friday at its General Assembly in Venice, is also organizing a major conference there on "The Research-based Pharmaceutical Industry in Europe: Challenges in the Global Marketplace." Nobel Laureate Gary S. Becker and Paul Herrling, head of research at Novartis Pharma, will reflect on how scientific progress can be harnessed to assure citizens' access to health care, particularly now that pharmaceutical R&D is promising a new age of breakthrough medicines.

¿ In a bid to maximize the potential of the recently adopted European Union rules to aid orphan drug development, the European Platform for Patients' Organizations, Science and Industry (EPPOSI) is organizing a high-level symposium on rare disease therapy and partnering in Brussels on September 21. Speakers will include the director of the European Medicines Evaluation Agency, Fernand Sauer, and European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. EPPOSI says the aim is to present venture capital companies and industry with potential orphan drug projects. Ten mature research projects will be presented as candidates for joint development.

¿ The United States and the European Union have named the members of the Biotechnology Consultative Forum they agreed to establish at their May 31 summit in Lisbon, Portugal. They include scientists, ethicists, environmentalists, farmers, businessmen, consumer representatives and development experts. Their role is to assess factors such as the food-security needs of developing countries, food safety, health, economic development and the environment. A report of their findings is to be delivered to the U.S.-EU summit in December.