Europe is ploughing billions into biotechnology and bioscience. Alison Goddard and Kam Patel report
THE government has named the steering group set up to monitor public anxiety about genetically modified food a week after the members held their first meeting.
The late announcement follows science minister John Battle's decision in November to launch a consultation exercise on the controversial use of biotechnology and bioscience in farming.
The eight-member steering group represents academia, industry and consumers. It includes: Monica Winstanley of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Tom Wakefield of the University of East London; Suzanne King of Wellcome Trust; Nigel Poole of Zeneca; Alison Austin of Sainsbury's; Philip Campbell of Nature; Julie Hill of Green Alliance; and Beryl Allen of the Women's Institute.
"There is a huge disquiet about biotechnology," said Mr Wakefield, a science and health lecturer. "People feel that biotechnology is out of their control and beyond their reach."
Mr Wakefield organised a "citizens' jury" earlier this year in which 12 members of the public heard evidence from biotechnology and biosciences experts. The jury saw no consumer benefits and instead supported a radical shift to organic farming.
"Genetically modified food was seen as being driven by the need to increase the market share of the agrochemical industry," he said.
The form of the public consultation has yet to be finalised. Its first stage will probably find out what the public knows about how biotechnology is controlled. It will then see how well regulation is working in the public's eyes. Finally, it will identify regulations the public would like to change.
"We need to get messages over about the tightness of the present regulation," said Mr Poole. "I believe that bioscience is the future of the country. But at the end of the day, I believe in democracy. I very strongly believe in openness ... we have nothing to be scared of."
The group's work is due to be completed by late September. Its findings will feed into unspecified deliberations to take place by the end of December. However, at last week's meeting, members thought that the consultation should be ongoing.
The results will be given as advice to the government but the science minister will not be obliged to follow it.
"If this consultation has the result that the public say strongly that the way biotechnology is regulated should be changed, then the government would look very off if it did not take notice," said Mr Wakefield.
CASH FOR BIOSCIENCE IS SET TO RISE FIVEFOLD
THE European Commission is planning a fivefold rise in money for biotechnology, bringing the total to Pounds 1.76 billion in the next four years.
Money will be channelled through the European Union's Framework Programme (1999-2003), whose budget is being negotiated between Europe's parliament and research council. Some 456 biotechnology projects (at a cost of Pounds 397 million) have been funded under the Framework IV (1994-1998), including 154 announced this week.
Framework IV projects:
* Cell factories: better understanding of how living cells function to enable industry to copy processes in design of new molecules and drugs (Pounds 66 million)
* Genome analysis: sequ-encing of genes of simple systems such as yeast; functioning of specific genes in these systems (Pounds 53 million)
* Plant and animal biotechnology: use of plant and animal genetics to improve farm breeding (Pounds 83 million)
* Cell communication in neurosciences: understanding cell physiology and communication in the nervous system during development to help treat disorders of the system (Pounds 36.4 million)
* Immunology, transdisease vaccinology: develop biotechnology-derived substances to prevent or control immune system disorders (Pounds 42 million)
* Structural biology: how large biological molecules such as carbohydrates relate to their structure (Pounds 57.4 million)
* Pre-normative research, biodiversity and social acceptance: link EU and national use of scientific data to develop regulations for biotechnology. Focus on public understanding and acceptance (Pounds 40.3 million)
* Infrastructures: commission consortia to coordinate dissemination of biotechnology information and of popular biological materials (Pounds 18.7 million)
Framework V projects:
* Health food and environment: develop safer, healthier food production system and reduce air pollution, heavy metal contamination, electromagnetic radiation, etc
* Control of infectous diseases: combat established, emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases
* Cell factories: to advance diagnostics, antibiotics and anti-cancer methods
* Sustainable agriculture, fisheries and forestry: new knowledge and technologies
* Ageing population: biological, psychological, social and economic research to help prevent and treat age-related diseases
* Research and technology to prevent chronic degenerative diseases; public health and health services; biomedical ethics
* Support for research infrastructure: organising biological data, clinical research facilities and trials; facilities for fisheries research