European Commission to appoint biotechnology high level group as expert advisers

Brussels 03 May 2000The European Commissioner for Research, Mr. Philippe Busquin, has appointed a panel of eminent life scientists to act as advisers to the European Commission. The Commissioner announced his decision to set up the high level group on biosciences at the presentation of the preliminary results of a 1999 Eurobarometer survey on European citizens' attitudes to biotechnology.

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"The life sciences represent a revolution in our way of thinking in the European Union. They encompass the scientific, the economic and the ethical. I thought it would be a good idea if we had at the European Union level a group of first class scientists who might advise the Commission and society at large", stated Mr. Busquin.

The members of the group have been chosen for their expertise and willingness to communicate with non-experts. Exactly how this group will be organised is not yet clear, as it has only convened once and is still in the process of setting the parameters for its work. However, according to the Commission, the experts' chief goal will be to "examine the wide ranging challenges and issues which developments in the life sciences raise for society".

"Europe should not stagnate in the field of biotechnology and adopt a general strategy by taking greater account of the scientists' views on the opportunities and the risks associated with biosciences", Mr. Busquin commented. The group's first step will be to enter into dialogue with all interested parties, including the European Parliament, Council, industry, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), consumers and the media. It will also prepare the ground for a "biosciences summit", a forum on life sciences and society, later this year in November.

The Commission believes it is crucial to nurture and maintain a dialogue on biotechnology between science and society. While the life sciences present scientists with once unimaginable opportunities to improve European citizens' quality of life, they touch increasingly on emotive and ethical concerns, raising uncertainty among the public and policy makers, as well as other scientists. The first Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology in 1991 uncovered distinct national patterns of awareness about biotechnology in terms of acceptance, risk and perception.

The latest survey reflects sustained and increasing public concern and shows in particular a decline in trust across all professional organisations, especially in the environmental NGOs and in academics. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement "I feel adequately informed about biotechnology", for example, only 11% of respondents agreed while 81% disagreed and 9% "didn't know". The Eurobarameter researchers were particularly surprised at how limited Europeans' basic understanding of biotechnology is.

The Eurobarometer also reveals that while Europeans are not technophobes, they are "not enthusiastic about biotechnology". Only nuclear power attracts less confidence. The Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Belgians are more optimistic about biotechnology than their neighbours across Europe, with citizens in Greece, the UK and Italy the most sceptical. Furthermore, support varies for different applications of biotechnology. While Europeans agree that it is morally acceptable to use genetic tests to look for inherited diseases or to clean up pollution for example, there is much less acceptance of cloning human cells or tissue to help patients or to transfer genes from one type of plant to another.

"As perceived usefulness declines, people think the risk increases and moral support declines", stated Professor Gaskell of the London School of Economics who presented the results of the recent Eurobarometer survey. "Usefulness seems to be a major concern to European citizens and determines the amount of support for different types of research in the biotechnology sector."

The European Commission hopes that the new group on biosciences will assist in addressing this issue. It will offer a science-based perspective on advances in biotechnology and their implications and advise on how scientists might better participate in the necessary dialogue with society. It may also be invited to prepare opinions on request by the Commissioner and will be free to prepare opinions on other matters of its own choice.

Professor Kahn, the newly appointed chairman of the biosciences high level group, stresses the need for sustained dialogue between scientists and society. "It is essential that the Commission set up this forum", he stated. "We are now talking about the finalisation of the human genome project which will help to combat HIV and other viruses. But the biotechnologists fear rejection by society. Society is taking a direct interest in science, asking questions as to what is legitimate, what is not, and to which risks are involved."

Scientists pursue the human aim of the road to knowledge. No one has the right to say they can't. It's a fundamental human right. And they act on behalf of society, often thanks to contributions from society, such as the European Union funds. There may not even be a serene future ahead if the dialogue between science and society does not improve. Shared values should not overlook the ways science and society can influence the future, as Professor Kahn added.

Commissioner Busquin emphasised the challenge ahead. "These are not issues that we're going to seal and settle immediately. I want to set up a genuine dialogue on life sciences in Europe. It's a process between science and society. The European Research Area (ERA) is designed to give society its voice and to help it face up to the 21st century. This is only a first point of contact."

The members of the biosciences high level group (BHLG) include:

  • Sir Tom Blundell from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom;
  • Professor Patrick Cunnigham from Trinity College in Ireland;
  • Professor Axel Kahn from the Institut Cochin de Génétique Moléculaire in France;
  • Professor Leonardo Santi from the Centro di Biotecnologie Avanzate in Italy;
  • Professor Hans Wigzell from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden;
  • Professor Rolf Zinkernagel from Switzerland;
  • Professor Derek Burke from Cambridge, United Kingdom;
  • Professor Victor de Lorenzo from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Spain;
  • Professor Anne McLaren from the Wellcome CRC Institute, United Kingdom;
  • Professor Marc Van Montagu from Ghent University in Belgium; and
  • Professor Ernst Ludwig Winnacker from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany.

The Commission was keen to point out that the biotechnology high level group (BHLG) does not replace the European Group on Ethics (EGE) which will continue its work. Professor McLaren is the only member of the BHLG who also advises the EGE. The EGE has previously published opinions on human cloning and medical ethics. It is now discussing ethics in the information society, and is considering, amongst other things, how genetic screening might affect employment practices in Europe.


Leslie Versweyveld

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