EESC Opinion: Life Sciences and Biotechnology

July 25, 2003

Brussels, 16 July 2003

OPINION of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, to the Council and to the European Economic and Social Committee on Life Sciences and Biotechnology - A strategy for Europe Progress report and future orientations ( COM(2003) 96 final)
Full text of Opinion in MS Word file on ESC website

[...] Introduction

In January 2002 the Commission presented a Strategy for Europe on life sciences and biotechnology, consisting of two parts - policy orientations and a 30-point plan to transform policy into action.

The European institutions have supported the integrated approach proposed by the Commission, and the EESC has commented in depth on the documents it received.

In its Opinion on the Communication on Life sciences and biotechnology - A Strategy for Europe, the EESC put forward a series of proposals, including the call for the precautionary principle to prevail - also in the context of biomonitoring - and to be applied at every stage; for the principle of liability for the cost of damage/inconvenience resulting from the use of such technology to be clearly stated; for the action plan to be fleshed out to include aspects such as educating all young Europeans to be aware of these sciences; for a precise definition of the responsibilities of each of the players; for transparency at every stage of research; for traceability and clear and understandable labelling; for consumer expectations to be recognised at international level by adopting risk-benefit criteria in all negotiating fora; for a continuous debate to be conducted to ensure proper assessment of scientific advances; for a communication strategy to be defined and for information to be objective.

The Barcelona European Council examined the strategy and stressed the importance of frontier technology as a key factor for future growth. It also called for appropriate measures and a timetable to be developed to enable Community businesses to exploit the potential of biotechnology while taking account of the precautionary principle and addressing ethical and social concerns.

The Competitiveness Council of 26 November 2002 adopted a series of important conclusions covering a vast array of measures, including the development of human resources, greater resources for research, intellectual property protection, the creation of online platforms available on the Internet, the pro-active role for public authorities, the participation of society and social dialogue, the regulatory framework and international cooperation.

The Communication in question is the first report on this matter. It sets out the results achieved in policy development and on the ground, and anticipates a number of emerging issues which are fundamental to the success of the Action Plan.

Some Member States have not yet been able to transform the aims of the European Council conclusions into action in areas which are vital to the development of biotechnology and life sciences.

The biotech industry, considered one of the sectors of the economy with the greatest potential for medium to long-term growth, groups together various technologies where innovation and competitiveness play a key role. Biotech enterprises largely grow out of the spin-off from universities or large businesses (following mergers or acquisitions) and operate with venture capital or "business angel" type arrangements (local networks of private investment providing funding and consultancy to young enterprises).

Biotech enterprises are predominantly SMEs, typically widely inter-disciplinary and highly specialised, although very diverse, with great capacity for invention and a high rate of growth (despite the crisis faced by the biotech food business). It has been found that a high concentration of such businesses are located in clusters where it is easier to build a technological basis and a critical mass of knowledge, and interact in terms of exchanging expertise and selecting staff with high potential.

Breaking new ground in the field of molecular biology and biotechnology has driven the sector into rapid expansion throughout the world over the past thirty years, with substantial growth recorded both in R&D activity and in terms of employment. The motor for such progress in knowledge and business partly lies in the inter-disciplinary nature of the industry and cooperation between academia and business, forging particularly effective synergies.

The features of the industry as detailed above provide insight into the concerns raised in the Communication with regard to some strategically-important areas, such as research, securing funding and a system for protecting intellectual property, since negligence and delays risk jeopardising the long-term success of biotechnology in the EU.

Comments on the main aspects of the strategy and on the proposals

[...]

European Economic and Social Committee

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