The European Commission's ruling on when and how its money can be used for stem cell research (page 12) is a masterpiece of tact. But it shows the limitations of research commissioner Philippe Busquin's plans for a European Research Area with common conditions throughout. By leaving the ethical and scientific decisions on the acceptability of stem cell science to member states, it makes it clear there are some fights that even Brussels knows it cannot win.
But the decision also has a plus side for European research. The insistence on informed consent, privacy and ethical controls shows that the architects of the ERA expect it to observe high standards. The other problem with this ruling is that it is bound to be temporary. The science moves on, while the available embryos that may be used for research will run out or prove inadequate at some stage. But the EU ruling applies only to the use of EU money, which is dwarfed by member states' research funding. In countries where stem cell research is allowed, national research agencies can still fund it. These countries will continue to have an advantage over the US from which researchers, member states and the private sector all stand to gain. And as Busquin may have calculated it creates an incentive for scientists in countries where stem cell research is banned to lobby for a common European approach in which it would be permitted.