Concerns over new EU ethics panel

Scientists fear new EU science ethics board is too conservative, inexperienced

By | November 4, 2005

A fight has erupted over the composition of an influential European ethics panel that advises the government on science and technology, with some arguing that new nominations were based on political and religious considerations, not ability or experience. Scientists also raised concerns that the increasingly conservative body may place new limits on research.

In late October, European Commission (EC) President José Manuel Barroso -- former Portuguese PM under a right-center government -- announced nine new members of the 15-member European Group on Ethics (EGE) in Science and New Technologies, an independent and multidisciplinary body that counsels the EC on policies and legislation. Five of the nine new members are practicing Roman Catholic activists, with little or no experience in science, a panel member -- who asked to be kept anonymous -- told The Scientist. The new nominations also reduced the number of active scientists on the 15-member panel from 4 to 2.

"Albeit respectable, religious convictions must not be mixed up with science," Jordi Camí, director of the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, which will harbour a stem cell research center, told The Scientist.

New members include physician and pharmacologist Jozef Glasa from Bratislava, Vice-President of the European Federation of Catholic Medical Associations; Hille Haker, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Tubingen faculty of catholic theology, a member of Harvard Divinity School and a director of the Catholic journal of theology Concilium; Emmanuel Agius, priest and professor of the University of Malta faculty of theology; and lawyer Carlo Casini, president of Italy's Pro-Life Movement and member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Another new member is Krzysztof Marczewski, an active Catholic who is professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland.

The previous EGE panel, which expired last March, was made up of 4 scientists, 4 lawyers and 4 philosophers. Some of the EGE's opinions and reports addressed ethical aspects of patenting inventions involving human stem cells, clinical research in developing countries, genetic testing in the workplace, and umbilical cord banking. EGE opinions, which are directly reported to the EC President, are not legally binding. Still, earlier EGE reports have been taken into account in drawing up EC directives dealing with stem cell patents and genetically modified organisms, among others.

Yvon Englert, a gynecologist at the Free University of Brussels, was one of the board members not re-appointed this year. He told The Scientist he had "more than concerns" about where the group was heading. "I can predict the utilization of the EGE as a war machine against freedom of research, especially in stem cell research but also in other ethically sensitive matters," noted Englert, also a member of the Belgian ethics committee.

"Politics and scientific research should be clearly separated," said Jordi Petriz, a researcher at the Barcelona Idibaps institute who noted he'd like to investigate therapeutic cloning. "I won't be surprised if this ultraconservative group [within EGE] fully opposes human embryo research and somatic cell nuclear transfer," he told The Scientist. Stellan Welin, a professor of biotechnology and bioethics expert at Linköping University in Sweden, agreed that the change in panel members could affect what research the EU supports. "The chances that EU may fund research on human embryonic stem cells from their own budget may diminish," Welin noted.

"My reaction is one of regret for an even greater move towards conservatism in the European Commission," Christine Mummer, an embryo researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology and the Interuniversity Cardiology Institute of the Netherlands in Utrecht, told The Scientist.

But EGE member Pere Puigdoménech at the Barcelona Molecular Biology Institute, one of only two active scientists left on the panel, told The Scientist that he didn't believe the new members would radically change the panel. "I don't think that the incorporation of new ethics experts actively connected with the Catholic Church will hurt future EGE opinions," he said, although he anticipated "a division of opinions" in sensitive issues such as therapeutic cloning. The other active scientist is new appointee Anne Cambon-Thomsen, a director of unit at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Toulouse.

The next two issues the EGE plans to discuss are nanomedicine and somatic nuclear transfer.

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