A handful of nations seek a ban even in countries where the research is legal
By Ned Stafford | March 28, 2006
Germany, Austria and other nations opposed to EU funding of human embryonic stem cell research proposed an EU funding ban this month in Brussels at a meeting of the EU's 25 national science ministers, raising concerns that the minority group could force nations to remove this funding from the newest budget, even for scientists in countries where the research is legal.
The six nations -- including also Italy, Poland, Malta and Slovakia -- failed to win additional backing at the meeting for a funding ban, but do hold enough combined voting power in the Council of science ministers to form a so-called "blocking minority." This means they could halt enactment of the EU's next science funding program for 2007-13, known as Framework Programme 7 (FP7), unless wording is added to the final FP7 document that would ban EU funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
Under Framework Programme 6 (FP6) guidelines, the EU gives funding priority to human adult stem cell research and will not fund any research on embryonic stem cells conducted in member states that forbid the research. Under FP6, eight projects involving human embryonic stem cell research have been funded and nearly 100 involving human adult stem cells have received funding approval, said Antonia Mochan, spokeswoman for EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.
Mochan told The Scientist that Potocnik has recommended that current guidelines pertaining to funding of human embryonic stem cell research in FP6 be retained in FP7. Although the six nations oppose this proposal, 15 nations agree, and four are neutral. Before any FP7 money for research can start flowing, a final plan must be approved by a qualified majority of the Council's 25 science ministers and also by the European Parliament.
Daniel Pipeleers, professor at Brussels Free University-VUB and director of the JDRF Center for Beta Cell Therapy in Diabetes, which will receive about ?1 million from the EU in direct support of human embryonic stem cell research from 2005-10 under FP6 guidelines, told The Scientist that he is concerned. (According to Mochan, already-approved FP6 money would not be affected by changes in FP7.)
Pipeleers added that a small group of nations should not impose a minority opinion on the EU. "I don't think they can decide for the whole EU," he said, adding that successful research in human embryonic stem cells requires collaboration among scientists across the EU, involving also teams working on adult stem cells, as well as ethicists. "Trying to block EU incentives and support for such European scientific collaboration goes too far."
This is a familiar situation to EU scientists -- opponents of human embryonic stem cell research actively sought an EU funding ban in FP6, Pipeleers said, but eventually accepted the current guidelines. They might not give up as easily this time, he added.
In an interview with The Scientist, Florian Frank, a spokesman for Germany's new Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, who strongly opposes human embryonic stem cell research, said that Germany's position is that EU funding should not be used for research projects that are not legal in Germany, even if those projects take place in other countries. If EU money is being used to support research not legal in Germany, "then we have something to say about it," he said.
Frank added that Germany would continue trying to convince other nations to accept this position. "This is politics. You try to convince the others." However, he declined to say if Germany would form a blocking minority if the FP7 does not ban EU funding for human embryonic stem cell research.
EU blocking minority
S. Pincock, "EU promises funding deal," The Scientist, February 2, 2006
JDRF Center for Beta Cell Therapy in Diabetes
Brussels Free University
N. Stafford, "German minister rebukes stem cell research," The Scientist, January 5, 2006