The Sixth Framework programme (FP6) and its provisions for biotechnology research were high on the agenda at the European ethics summit in Brussels on 29 August. In the light of the recent disagreement between the Parliament and the Research Council over the funding of embryonic research, MEPs took the opportunity to call for more debate on ethics and to criticise those who have sought to ignore or play down the issue. Opening the conference, Parliament President Pat Cox claimed that the institution often 'doesn't have an opinion' and that it is a 'struggle to find a majority'. He concluded that this 'reflects the complexity and diversity of society' and called for more debate on the issue. German MEP Peter Liese questioned the Commission's tendency to avoid debate on ethics, as was the case during discussions on bio-patenting, he said. The Commission saw the directive as purely economics based and insisted that it should not be regarded from an ethics perspective as ethics remains a national question, claimed Mr Liese. 'If you talk about biotechnology, you have to talk about ethics. When the Commission tried to separate commercial and ethical aspects, the people of Europe asked us not to accept the directive because their was no ethical background,' he said. 'The same could happen with the Sixth Framework programme,' he added. Injecting some controversy into the discussion, Mr Liese, who worked previously as a doctor, argued that embryonic research is not as essential as scientists would sometimes have the public believe. 'Don't trust scientists when they say they need human embryos to save hundreds of thousands of lives. It is an open question whether it will ever come to this or whether other means can be used instead. 10 years ago we believed in other technologies which never came to fruition, 'he said. While Mr Liese welcomed the Commission's initiative to form the European group on ethics (EGE), he said that their discussions on ethics should not be an excuse for politicians to avoid the debate. He also pointed out that while the EGE is composed of researchers, philosophers and lawyers, the life sciences advisory group comprises only researchers. 'Scientists want to speak about ethics, but don't want others to speak about science,' he said. German MEP and President of the European People's Party, Hans-Gert Pöttering noted that the EU has now evolved from the economic community that its founders envisaged and said that it was high time that common values were debated in addition to economic policies. He highlighted the Parliament's role in ensuring that a debate on ethics took place during negotiations on FP6. He added that Parliament succeeded in obtaining more funding for the science and society section of FP6, under which activities focusing on ethics will be funded.
Policy making and guidelines
28 August 2002