German candidates debate science

Education and research minister reverses herself on stem cell law and criticizes potential successor

By | August 23, 2005

In an indication that scientific research has become a major issue in Germany's national elections next month, Federal Education and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn has reversed previous statements and signaled her support for amending Germany's strict human embryonic stem cell law. She and others in her left-of-center SPD party, headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also sharply attacked the qualifications of Annette Schavan, who main opposition chancellor candidate Angela Merkel has pegged to become education/science minister if she defeats Schroeder in the September 18 election.

Until last week, Bulmahn's stand on the current law was not much different than that of most of Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU coalition: that the law is sufficient for the basic research being conducted in Germany. But last week Bulmahn strayed from that position. In an interview in the daily Die Welt, Bulmahn said it now appears that medical treatments derived from human stem cell research are likely in the "foreseeable future." For that reason, she believes amending Germany's law will be debated in the Bundestag during the next four-year legislative period, with a particular focus on allowing import of newer stem cell lines.

Schavan has neither research expertise nor ideas for a "modern innovation policy or insight into international competition in top technologies," Bulmahn said in a statement. Comparing German science to a high-tech racing car, Bulmahn added: "Germany cannot win with a beginning driver in a Formula 1 auto."

"Schavan really knows nothing about science," Florian Frank, Bulmahn's spokesperson, told The Scientist. "This would be a problem for scientific research in Germany."

But Schavan, currently minister of education, youth and sport in the state of Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany's largest states, strongly defended her qualifications to lead science in Germany, noting her 10 years as a minister. "I have no doubt that I am very well prepared for the [federal minister] job," she told The Scientist.

Acknowledging that she lacked direct international experience, Schavan said that Baden-Württemberg universities and institutions had many international relationships. "I would not be starting at square one," she said.

Schavan said the SPD's sharp criticism toward her is a sign of how fearful the party is of losing the election. "Pride comes before the fall," she said. "The strong reaction against me shows how uncertain they are."

Schavan said that if the CDU/CSU coalition wins the election, then Germany's embryonic stem cell law "would remain as it is." She added: "Of course, laws must now and then be scrutinized. But the way things stand today, I don't think anything has changed that would necessitate reopening the law."

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