Brussels, January 2004
Opening session of the conference “Research Ethics Committees in Europe: facing the future together”
Brussels, January 2004
Dear Members of the European Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to Brussels!
I am pleased to see that you have come in such a large number, making possible the first of what I hope will be many such events.
Ethical issues can be looked at from three different perspectives:
- firstly from the perspective of the Charter of Fundamental Rights;
- secondly, from the importance of ethics in the Commission activities;
- and finally, from your perspective as members of Research Ethics Committees.
As you all know, regulation of ethical issues as such remains the responsibility of individual Member States, reflecting the ethical pluralism and the principle of subsidiarity that characterise the European Union.
However a common set of basic shared values does exist at EU level. It is embodied in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is an integral component of the Constitutional project of the Union.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights must be a point of reference for all our policymaking. The final aim is a development of a true "culture" of protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Commission and in the European Union.
Several Articles of the Charter have an important role for research. Respect for human dignity, ban on human reproductive cloning, non-commercialisation of biological components derived from the human body, prohibition of eugenic practices, protection of privacy, freedom of science, these are all examples of values enshrined in the Charter.
But ethical issues are not something which pops up from time to time!
On a daily basis, the European Commission intends to ensure that its policies are fully consistent with the values enshrined in the Charter.
The Commission takes ethical issues very seriously. I will give you two very practical examples.
The first one is the setting-up, some years ago, of a European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. This group is an independent and multidisciplinary body that advises the European Commission on ethical aspects of science and new technologies. It has provided a series of reports on subjects as diverse as human tissue banking, human embryo research, personal health data in the information society, doping in sport and human stem cell research. These reports are valuable contributions when preparing and implementing Community legislation or policies.
More recently, President Barroso established a group of Commissioners to deal with ‘Fundamental rights, the fight against discrimination and equal opportunities’, chaired by Vice-President Frattini. This excellent initiative aims to strengthen the coherence of Community actions in these three domains.
The fact that two bodies focus their agenda on fundamental rights and ethical issues is a strong political message from the Commission showing the priority that it grants to these topics.
Let’s move on to science and research now.
Ethics is fast becoming an integral component of governance, particularly for scientific research in Europe, within the EU research framework and also more generally.
Does ethics oppose science? I do not think so. It improves science and ensures that it is carried out in a responsible way and thus in line with the expectations of society.
This is being reflected in the evolution of the EC regulatory framework (from clinical trials to patenting), which increasingly requires Member States to pay due attention to ethics.
Examples of how the Commission seeks to strengthen and raise awareness of the role of ethics in research can be also found in the ethical review process in the Sixth Framework Programme and calls for projects for research on ethics and science.
The FP6 ethical review does not only aim to ensure that EU funded research is carried out in accordance with fundamental ethical principles. It also recognises the importance of approval of research protocols by you, the local Research Ethics Committees. Thus it respects both the principle of subsidiarity and the EC’s own mandate with regard to ethics.
The purpose of this conference is to open up this discussion. Our aim has been to gather together a wide range of research ethics committees’ representatives from as many different countries as possible in order to get a better picture of where we all currently stand.
We are well aware that the work of these committees, your work, is essential to the integration of ethics into research practices.
But we also know that, in several Member States, there are several issues that need to be addressed, such as the lack of financial resources, training needs, sharing of best practices and lack of appropriate national or supra-national legislation, to name a few.
You are the people working on the front line. You are the people who, on a daily basis, and with little or no funding, have to tackle the challenge of how to apply ethical principles in practice to scientific and medical research.
This Conference is not intended to launch a political debate. It has been specifically designed to focus on the practical aspects of your work, in order to open a discussion on what can be done at a European level to help the work of research ethics committees at local or regional level.
So I urge you to share your good practices together with any obstacles and pitfalls you encounter in evaluating the ethics of research protocols. We hope this will enable us to identify recommendations for future initiatives, actions and activities.
We hope to achieve a very positive outcome from this conference. Therefore I strongly encourage you all to speak freely, to make the most of the opportunity of working in smaller groups this afternoon and tomorrow morning, and to openly discuss together the problems and challenges you have to face. The success of this conference is in your hands!
As I said at the beginning of my speech, this conference is just a first step to try to improve the integration of ethics into research practices.
Scientists and researchers are constantly searching for new answers, which would improve our quality of life, for example through sustainable agriculture or health improvements. They are doing, and I am sure that we can agree on this, a great work.
Ethical concerns are always accompanying scientific activities. And rightly so. Sometimes they are justified, sometimes not.
But in both cases, it is more than justified, it is vital, to discuss them in an opened and friendly spirit of tolerance. For the sake of the importance of scientific search and for future scientific developments. Not only here and today in Brussels, but on a daily basis and in particular on regional and local levels.
Let me close my introduction by thanking the Chairpersons of the workshops, the speakers, the conference advisors and colleagues from International Organisations, the staff of the Commission services and all of you again for your presence today.
I wish you all lively discussions and fruitful exchanges and I am keen to hear about the reports that will come from the workshops’ sessions.