Mr Erkki Liikanen: "The way Forward for Biotech and Sustainable Development in the EU", World Life Sciences Forum, Biovision, Lyon, April 10, 2003

April 16, 2003

Lyon, April 10, 2003

BioSciences & Tomorrow's Industrial Sustainability

Ensuring sustainable development is one of the main challenges of the modern era.

Three weeks ago, at the Spring European Council, the EU Heads of State and Government emphasised the need to keep the achievement of sustainable development objectives at the top of the Union's agenda.

In order to succeed, we need solid achievements in the economic, social and environmental areas. And we need to guarantee the right balance between the objectives.

It is obvious that without the economic dimension, sustainable development will not be achieved. It is the economic dimension and a competitive industry that will allow the creation of jobs and investment in more environment-friendly technologies. It is thus essential to ensure the global competitiveness of European industry and its continuing ability to innovate.

Biotechnology can substantially contribute to this purpose. The beauty of it is that it can also directly contribute to the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Economic sustainability

First of all, the economic pillar. Biotechnology is now an industry in its own right: its high potential will make it a cornerstone of a competitive knowledge-based economy in Europe. This is why political leaders have kept it high up on the political agenda, at the European Council.

But also central to our vision of biotechnology is its role in the development of a whole new set of technologies for more traditional industries. The technological impact of biotechnology here is indeed much greater than its direct impact alone.

Biotechnology is revolutionising production in basic economic sectors. Access to the latest biotechnology-based processes is underpinning the competitiveness of a number of industries in Europe, enabling them to increase productivity and develop new premium products.

Social sustainability

The second pillar of sustainable development is social progress. Biotechnology research and industry itself generates in terms of the high-productivity jobs.

But, once again, it's the applications of biotechnology that are beginning to make a really important contribution to sustainability. The development of new products and services will help to sustain Europe's high level of social protection despite the challenges posed by the ageing of the population.

Many new pharmaceutical products now under development contain some ingredients derived from biotechnology. Growing knowledge of human genetics is also enabling the development of new ranges of medicines that are "tailor-made" to suit the genetic make-ups of different patient types.

Biotechnology's benefits to healthcare are not confined to pharmaceuticals. The growing knowledge of human genetics is facilitating a more personalised approach to healthcare management, enabling preventative measures to be better targeted towards people who are most at risk from hereditary diseases.

Environmental sustainability

Thirdly the environment. Biotechnology's major environmental impact is the way that the new set of technologies is making traditional industries more environmentally friendly. By adopting and adapting processes that have evolved in nature, biotechnology typically replaces crude chemical reactions with biological activity.

The result is lower economic and environmental costs, the use of cleaner and more efficient production processes as well as cheaper and more environmentally friendly products for consumers.

Biotechnology and ICT

Biotechnology is thus an enabling technology, which is important for sustainable development. Enabling technologies offer new perspectives. Moreover, synergies between nanotechnologies, biotechnology and information technology will provide further multiplying effects on innovation, well being and sustainable development.

Let me just hint to some of these synergies.

Inspiration from nature for ICT

The first synergy may come from the inspiration biological systems will bring to the rescue of barriers in future development of information systems. Information systems have recently developed to extreme sizes:

  • downwards to the nanometer scale with the shrinking of microelectronics
  • upwards to the terabit scale for the bandwidth of networks or in computing power.

    It becomes increasingly difficult to design complex semiconductor chips or complex information systems.

    We should be able to exploit important characteristics of biological systems, such as their ability of single units to massively reproduce with near-zero error rate, the capability to self-assemble into highly complex systems, the ability to adapt their functions to changing conditions, to detect damage and self repair, and to communicate among themselves.

    Very important developments are also taking place on interfaces between human neural systems and semiconductor chips. These will eventually lead to artificial prostheses that naturally respond to our brain commands.

    At the small scale, researchers are moving to exploit biological building blocks such as DNA to build nano-scale infrastructures that will support semiconductor devices and metal wires for future 3-dimensional chips. They are also experimenting with the matching characteristics of DNA to support self-assembling of molecular-size devices. This combination of biotechnology and nanotechnology enables the notion of "small but powerful".

    ICT contributes to biotechnology

    On the other hand, information technology is also bringing revolutionary developments to fields that are traditionally addressed by biotechnology. The research on the human genome was only possible with the use of extremely powerful detection and computation systems.

    By integrating optoelectronics, microfluidics and biotechnology, we can now produce "labs on a chip" that can perform hundreds of tests in parallel. These will revolutionise diagnosis and cure of diseases, and also the discovery and development of new medical drugs.

    At the largest scale, the Internet interestingly has developed more like a living organism than like an engineered system, by growing without a plan, by adapting to its environment, by birth and death of "cells". By studying the Internet and comparing it with our understanding of living beings, we are able to build new theories of self-assembled systems that are also helping us understand other man-made systems such as markets.

    These are just a few examples, but they that a convergence between these enabling technologies brings many opportunities for innovation and economic development, for human health and well-being.

    Spreading the message

    All this is good news for economic, social and environmental sustainability. However it often seems to be overshadowed by the risks that some applications of biotechnology are widely perceived to pose. There is no getting away from the fact that biotechnology is often perceived to be more of a threat than an opportunity.

    A widely held, but inaccurate, perception of biotechnology is that some of its products are inherently damaging to health and the environment. This is mainly because of the longstanding controversy in Europe and elsewhere over Genetically Modified food.

    However, European legislation on GM food permits only the marketing of GM varieties that are as safe as conventional varieties.

    We have arguably the most stringent legislative framework for GMOs in the world, and compliance with it is often seen as a burden for agricultural biotechnology. Yet having such a framework in place is the only way of improving consumer confidence in GMOs.

    Many GM crop varieties are commercially viable precisely because they do not need so many chemical inputs as non-GM crops. Unfortunately, that is a point that is all too often overlooked or even dismissed in the public debate.

    Outside agriculture, there seems to be very little public awareness of the crucial role that biotechnology has begun to play in transforming many basic European industries.

    Therefore one thing that I would urge those of you who are here today from the industry to do is to highlight the positive contribution that biotechnology can make to sustainability, and the concrete benefits its applications may provide to consumers and citizens. It would seem particularly worthwhile making this point in regard to medical and industrial applications, where the development of biotechnology is widely acceptable.

    The Strategy

    Realising biotechnology's great potential is a key objective of the Strategy and Action Plan for biotechnology and life sciences in Europe that we set in motion last year.

    We have based our Strategy on a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of European biotechnology, and on a broad consultation of stakeholders and the public. This enabled us to find common ground on a wide range of policy issues.

    A detailed presentation of the contents of our Strategy was provided yesterday in a specific session at this conference. Let me just underline that the basic idea is to develop biotechnology's potential here in Europe in a way that is consistent with European values and standards.

    The Strategy addresses and seeks to reconcile a number of diverse concerns, ranging from the treatment of environmentalist and ethical issues to economic concerns about the competitiveness and sustainability of biotechnology in Europe.

    Progress to date

    The Strategy, with its 30-point action plan, has now been welcomed by all the main EU institutions. The framework for co-operative action is thus in place, and for the first time an integrated policy in this area is now being implemented at the European level.

    We've now taken stock of the progress we've made over the first year. On the whole, we are anxious that in the area of life sciences and biotechnology we might run the risk in the EU of not raising enough our competitiveness and dynamism.

    We have now identified the need for decisive actions in several key policy areas. The main priorities are:

    • tackling fragmentation in research;

    • strengthening the industry's development by supporting the protection of Intellectual Property rights;

    • actively implementing the new GMOs legislation;

    • improving biotechnology companies' access to finance.
  • Important progress has already been made in the first two of these policy areas, but political factors and a tough financial climate have made it difficult to make much headway on the others.

    On research, a major achievement has been the adoption of the 6th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. This will be a powerful tool for building a European research Area networking our centres of scientific excellence.

    Regarding the protection of intellectual property rights, Member States have reached political agreement on the proposed Community-wide Patent that will pave the way for much better and efficient IPR protection.

    The way ahead

    But our strategy does not only involve the European Institutions. It also seeks to include measures that are more the responsibility of the Member States and other public authorities as well as of the private sector. The Commission is directly responsible for some actions but is also determined to do what it can to keep up the general momentum and to play a facilitating role.

    The next stage in our strategy is thus for the various authorities and organisations to start delivering the new policy measures according to the responsibilities set out in the action plan and to implement measures to which they are already committed.

    One major example is intellectual property. Delays have occurred in the implementation of Community legislation concerning the legal protection of biotechnological inventions. This legislation was adopted in 1998 after a long and constructive debate that lasted about ten years. It is applicable since 30 July 2000.

    To date, however, only six Member States have fulfilled their obligation to transpose the Directive into their national legal systems. The failure of the others to do so leaves companies engaged in innovative biotechnology research uncertain about whether they are fully entitled to the commercial fruits of their work.

    This is severely hampering the industry's development, discouraging not only innovators themselves but also the potential investors whose finance is so desperately needed.

    More active co-operation from all Member States is needed in the implementation of the new legislation governing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Having demanded - and subsequently committed themselves to - a more rigorous framework, it is now imperative that all Member States implement the Community legislation on the authorised release of GMOs into the environment.

    The scale of the financial crisis presently facing the biotechnology industry is worrying. A persistent lack of capital could raise the risk that Europe will lose part of the knowledge base that has been built up. Industry will have to go through a consolidation process. But concerted action is also necessary to bridge the financing gap, involving public authorities as well as private investors.

    The private sector also has a part to play in improving the policy framework for biotechnology. Its advice would especially welcome on practical issues, where there is no substitute for direct experience.

    As I mentioned earlier, industry should pro-actively demonstrate to citizens more concrete examples of the practical contributions that biotechnology is making towards sustainable development.

    We would also be grateful for more information from biotechnology companies about their particular needs for example in education and training, specifically tomorrows' needs in terms of a skilled workforce.

    Last but not least, we would warmly welcome companies' assessments of what sort of policies they have found most helpful and effective in facilitating the industry's development, and their view of best practices in such matters as raising start-ups and later-stage finance.

    Conclusion

    We now have a vision, and a "road map" for the development of biotechnology in Europe: The success of our European biotechnology Strategy will now depend on a co-operative effort of policy-makers at all levels and the private sector. It is for us all to take benefit of it.

    DN: SPEECH/03/198 Date: 15/04/2003

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