Brussels, 13 Jan 2005
The European Group of Life Sciences (EGLS), established in 2000 to advise the Commission on current and future life science technologies, has completed its mandate. The group wrapped up its work with a number of conclusions on the relationship between science and society, as well as other challenges facing Europe in the future.
As highlighted by Victor de Lorenzo, EGLS President since 2002, modern life sciences have led to huge expectation in relation to improving health, agriculture and the environment. They have also opened up new avenues for key industrial sectors, including energy production, chemical engineering and the development of materials. Yet these advances have not always gained acceptance by society.
'The one lesson to emerge after a decade of controversies (GM food, stem cells, reproductive technologies...) is that research, development and innovation can hardly prosper in the face of social opposition to science,' writes Professor de Lorenzo.
And opposition is increasing. Not necessarily because scientific developments are now more controversial, but because citizens now demand more information on how their taxes are spent than in the past. These demands are described by Professor de Lorenzo as 'sometimes [...] an unwelcome surprise to scientists traditionally educated in the culture of pure, curiosity-driven research.
The way forward is 'not to avoid or to disguise the debate [...], but to promote a structured and informed discussion among all stakeholders on any given challenge,' concludes the EGLS.
The EGLS favours stakeholders' meetings, which it believes could inspire new ways to raise support for science. Such meetings must outline what society has to gain from modern scientific endeavour, in terms of new products and services, economic development and new knowledge. Crucially, writes Professor Lorenzo, new knowledge provided by the life sciences could become instrumental in understanding and finding solutions for problems such as personal dissatisfaction, religious fundamentalism, inter-ethnic and inter-cultural conflicts, and even terrorism.
The EGLS has identified 15 scientific challenges that it believes can contribute to tackling the above societal problems, and which could be used to shape the European research agenda in the coming years. The areas selected are diverse, and include food supply and natural resources, microbial lifestyles and the microbial metagenome, stem cells, infectious diseases, regulations, systems biology, synthetic biology and education. Some of these must be priorities in Europe in order to ensure human survival, while others promise a better quality of life. Knowledge in all of these fields is also likely to boost economic competitiveness, particularly in those that are only beginning to emerge now.
The microbial metagenome is one such emerging area of study. 'While ownership of the information present in the human genome has triggered all social and political alarms, it is shocking that the factual monopoly of the exploration of the global genetic contents of the biosphere (which is yielding around one million new genes per year) by the USA is being left unchecked by Europe,' writes Professor de Lorenzo. '[This] will mean that massive genetic resources will be owned by the few who get there first. Researchers on our continent have the ability and vision to implement ambitious metagenomic projects on a large scale, but lack funding and appropriate structure,' he continues.
The EGLS also sounds a warning about regulation. Aspirin and the smallpox vaccine may never have been commercialised under today's regulations, states the group's paper. These and many other medicines were developed at a time when trust in science was far greater. 'It is clear that over-regulation stifles progress in the life sciences, as well as in the generation of new drugs and the fight against infectious diseases,' writes Professor de Lorenzo.
The EGLS' final conclusion focuses on education, which the group describes as 'the major bottleneck for the future of life sciences research in Europe'. Professor de Lorenzo urges action in order to capture young talent, and concludes with the assertion: 'it is up to the young to make Europe an example for the sustainable existence of an advanced, informed, just and developed society.'
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