Brussels, 24 July 2002
Researchers should be made to sit on ethics committees with other citizens to tackle their lack of interest in ethical issues. This is one of the opinions expressed in response to a public consultation on biotechnology , the results of which will soon be available at the following web address: http://europa.eu.int/comm/biotechnology /introduction_en.html
The consultation, launched by the European Commission in September 2001 and which lasted until November 2001, was based on a document raising the main issues surrounding biotechnology and asking for comments and opinions. The exercise was part of a wider public consultation to prepare for the communication 'Life sciences and biotechnology - a strategy for Europe,' which was adopted in January this year.
A large majority of the contributions called for ethical aspects to be taken on board in biotechnology research, with networking at European level of national ethical groups. In addition to the suggestion that those working in scientific research should sit on ethics committees to tackle the apparent lack of interest in such issues, it was also recommended that private companies create ethics committees and foster ethical management.
Some contributors also called for the role of the European group on ethics (EGE) to be stepped up. There were calls for the group to serve as the only reference body on ethics for all European institutions and to be made up of elected representatives, responsible for organising public debate and following trends in public opinion. Some contributors warned, however, that extending the role of the group too far could be counter productive.
Risk evaluation also emerged as a key issue in the biotechnology debate. Some contributors called for the evaluation of risk in new life sciences and biotech developments to be stepped up, using a multidisciplinary approach at European level to tackle risk issues, with the Commission playing an important role. An advisory committee for the evaluation of biotechnologies was also suggested, with a steering committee to make proposals and gather information.
The creation of a European council for fundamental research was another suggestion to emerge from the debate. Some called for greater coordination of national and regional research funding efforts, as European programmes account for only five to 10 per cent of all research programmes in Europe.
Some elements of Directive 98/44, which protects biotechnology inventions, also came in for criticism. Concern was voiced over the lack of clarity in what can be patented, while some contributors worried that 'broad' patents could curb research into new diagnostic and treatment methods.
The Commission now intends to launch a further inter-institutional consultation to consider ethical questions at European level and evaluate the role, composition and working methods of the European group on ethics.