The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is setting up a grant program to fund ¤30 million each year for outstanding research in molecular biology. The program may be of particular interest to scientists from smaller countries and to those who are working in research that is difficult to fund (such as work with genetically modified plants).
This scheme may make science more competitive because researchers will vie for grants with peers from all over Europe, rather than from just one country. "If you are a scientist who has been awarded a European grant where choice is purely based on quality, that would send a message to all of your peers in your country, saying that you are in fact a top-class scientist," says EMBO's executive director, Frank Gannon.
Gannon hopes scientists will be able to apply for funds within the next two years. Details on financing the effort are currently being worked out, as member countries determine their own level of participation. "This could help test whether it will be possible to implement a European Research Council on a larger scale," says Luc Van Dyck, executive coordinator of the European Life Sciences Forum.
STEM CELL UPDATE After much agonizing, the European Commission decided that the European Union should fund research involving the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines. But grant applicants will have to meet strict criteria that carry the stamp of politics, rather than meeting the requirements of scientists.
According to the proposal, the EU will fund only research involving spare embryos that have been created for fertility treatment. This is in line with regulations in the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Greece. However, in other countries, such as Ireland, Germany, and Italy, this type of research is banned, and scientists from those countries won't be eligible for EU funds.
The trouble is, "when applying for [EU funds], we are encouraged to include representative labs from as many European countries as possible," says Robin Lovell-Badge at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. "It would be hard to exclude German scientists, for example, and the application would probably be rejected immediately on political grounds if it did not. I don't know how that is going to work."
The EC also agreed on a cut-off date: June 27, 2002. Embryos used for the derivation of stem cells must have been created prior to this date. "We did not want to encourage the production of more human embryos than needed for [in vitro fertilization]," says Fabio Fabbi, European Commission spokesman for research.
But scientists in the field say the agreement will leave fewer high-quality embryos available for research, because the embryos left in the freezers of fertility clinics are those not to be reimplanted into the mothers. In addition, scientists would have to find the donors of those embryos first in order to get their informed consent, which is much more difficult than getting consent when the embryos are being initially obtained.
Martina Habeck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer in London.