Scientific hands bound by laws

April 19, 1996

Too many laws and regulations are suffocating research in Germany and preventing scientists from competing with advances in other countries such as the United Kingdom, according to leading scientists.

A report published by the German research association DFG calls for professional scientific bodies to be given more powers of self-regulation and responsibility in sensitive areas of research.

It claims the country's tough laws on human fertilisation and embryology, environmental and data protection, genetic technology and animal welfare, amount to a climate of mistrust of science.

The German embryonic protection law, which came into force in 1991, comes in for particular criticism. The scientists do not object to many of the aims of the law, which prevents fertilisation of human eggs for reasons other than pregnancy, artificial determinination of gender, surrogate motherhood and cloning, among other things.

But they say the use of the criminal law to enforce the regulations has "suffocated research activity in the field of reproductive medicine while in other countries big progress has been made".

Professional regulations already in place would have been enough to prevent abuses of the technology, they claim. The scientists also criticise the law for banning the freezing of artificially fertilised embryos and prohibiting pre-implantation diagnosis, in which embryos can be checked to ensure they are free of genetic defects before implantation into the womb.

As a result German scientists can only adopt advances already made in other countries such as the UK, Belgium, Holland and the United States, but cannot contribute active research. The report points to advances in pre-implantation projects in the UK under the auspices of the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and international advances being made the understanding of cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia and haemophilia via preimplantation diagnosis. It claims it is "incomprehensible that in a converging Europe such differences of legislation exist between countries". The report also criticises an overemphasis on animal protection in Germany. It calls for a relaxation of restrictions on genetic technology and claims that data protection laws impose virtually insurmountable hurdles, for example for research into people with Alzheimer's Disease.

Wolfgang Fruhwald, president of the DFG, the central self-governing organisation of science in Germany, said the right of freedom of research enshrined in the constitution was increasingly taking a back seat to conflicts between individual rights and general protection in society.

Forschungsfreiheit: Ein Pladoyer der DFG fur bessere Rahmenbedingungen der Forschung in Deutschland, is published by VCH Verlagsgesellschaft.

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