The EU's funding programme for all scientific research risks becoming mired in conflict over embryology issues.

Arthur Rogers/Strasbourg, France

The EU’s €54.5 billion (?37.6 billion) seventh framework programme (FP7) cleared first reading in the European Parliament on 15 June, but now risks becoming mired in conflict over embryology issues.

By 284 votes to 249, the Parliament decided that embryonic stem cell research should be eligible for FP7 funding.

But FP7,  the EU’s chief instrument for funding all scientific research and technological development from 2007 to 2013, must also be approved by the EU states, six of which prohibit embryonic stem cell research or impose tight restrictions.

Germany, for example, allows researchers to work only with imported cell lines, rather than authorising creation of new lines.

The sixth framework programme, due to expire on 31 December, was delayed by resistance from Austria, Germany and Luxembourg who objected to their taxpayers’ money being used for cloning research prohibited on their own territory. 

The number of EU states antipathetic to work on embryos has grown has since grown, with the 2004 accessions of Malta, Polandand Slovakia.

Although the European Parliament’s Strasbourgvote attached conditions to the eligibility of work with stem cells, opponents predicted that the safeguards would fail to satisfy enough states to allow FP7 to proceed.

Faced by a blocking minority, the Council of Ministers would be forced to overturn the Parliament’s decision. 

One critic, Christian Democrat MEP Peter Liese, a member of Germany’s Central Ethics Committee, predicted that the Parliament will be unable to reinstate its 15 June amendments at second reading because changes must be supported by a majority of the Parliament’s 732 serving members.

The 15 June vote represented ’a bad day for the opponents of embryology,’ said Liese, ’but the campaign goes on.’

Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, however, viewed conditions imposed by MEPs as reasonable: ’Relying on the ethical standards of either the most restrictive or the most liberal countries would simply be against the principles of the EU,’ he said.

Although the FP7 budget has been slashed to €54.5 billion from the €72.7 billion proposed by Potocnik, on account of the capping of EU spending, most MEPs feel it will offer useful encouragement to cross-border research collaborations.

Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek, rapporteur on FP7 for the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee commented, ’This is not our dream budget, but [it] does show the way the EU wishes to go towards becoming a knowledge-based economy.’

Buzek, himself a professor of technical sciences with a particular interest in energy and climate change, pointed out that research into renewables and clean energy will be major themes of FP7.

Discounting calls from the anti-nuclear lobby for a major diversion of funding to renewables, he said: ’If we want to have security of supply, we need to develop all three key options of renewables, clean coal and nuclear.’

Where FP7 may break new ground is by acknowledging that previous FPs may have placed too much emphasis on applied science in hopes of enhancing Europe’s industrial base.

’The European paradox is that we have very good research but not enough innovation,’ said Buzek, who feels that lack of European opportunities in basic science is a factor in the brain drain of young scientists - a trend which FP7 is designed to counteract.

Buzek also opined that a reorientation of EU science policy will result from the FP7 project for an autonomous European Research Council (ERC) mandated to foster ’frontier science’.

Ultimately, ERC could become an executive EU agency ’entirely free from political influence,’ according to Buzek.

But for the moment, Buzek pointed out that, for all the controversy surrounding FP7, its budget represents barely 6 per cent of Europe’s total public R&D funding.