Leader: Europe must not let rivalries snare research agenda

September 13, 2002

This week's wrangle over the forthcoming Framework programme for research shows that the European Research Area planned in Brussels will be complex to implement. The argument involves sore points both scientific and political. The subject at issue is stem-cell research, and the dispute is between ministers, the European Parliament and the civil servants of the European Commission.

The first problem the dispute points up is that some important research is controversial. There is no agreed European standard for the acceptability of research in areas such as stem cells or xenotransplanation. It will probably never be possible to have one. The European Union does not have the authority to instruct member nations to authorise particular forms of research that their voters might find repugnant.

This applies mainly to reproductive technology. But there is also variation in the standards applied to research using animals. And in other areas, the storage of data on individuals is a possible flashpoint of varying national standards.

Creating a single European research system will involve creating common employment law, greater staff mobility and more transparent funding. This will take time. But removing the national differences that can make research acceptable in some countries but not others will be an even slower task. Such differences will be an even greater obstacle for the proposed European Research Council that will distribute cash to top projects. As Roger Pedersen's decision ( THES , September 6) to move his stem-cell research from the US to Cambridge shows, national differences can work in Europe's favour, but ensuring they do not disadvantage it is important too.

The European system of decision-taking is another complicating factor that contrasts with the steps being taken to streamline Foresight, the British machine for deciding research priorities. Ministers from national governments are engaged in a war to maintain or enhance their role, to the annoyance of MEPs. Researchers seeking Framework cash cannot solve this problem. But they are entitled not to have their plans delayed by the resultant infighting.

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