In its first progress report since adopting the EU strategy on life sciences and biotechnology in 2002, the European Commission yesterday indicated that the risk of diverging policies in Member States could seriously hamper the effectiveness and consistency of the EU strategy in this field.
While progress has been made in some areas, such as the adoption of the EU 6th Research Framework Programme and the EU regulatory framework for GMOs, others are suffering from serious delays. The Commission maintains that Member States are slow in transposing biotechnology patents legislation and that such delays are increasing the risk of failing to meet objectives in the area of life sciences and biotechnology outlined at the March 2000 Lisbon European Council.
"A recent Commission survey of private biotech companies and public research institutes reveals that 39 per cent of the respondents have cancelled research projects on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) over the last four years," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "In the private sector alone, 61 per cent of respondents have cancelled research projects in this field. Now that legitimate consumer and environmental concerns have been tackled by strict EU legislation, it is time to reverse this downward trend. If we do not react, we will be dependent on technology developed elsewhere in the world within the next ten years."
The Commission is calling for decisive action and concrete commitments - in particular more research and financial resources, and completing the system for the protection of intellectual property rights.
In January 2002, the Commission adopted a Strategy for Europe on Life Sciences and Biotechnology, including policy recommendations and a 30-point Action Plan (COM(2002) 27 final). It proposes a comprehensive roadmap up to 2010 and puts the sector at the forefront of frontier technologies, helping the European Union meet its long-term strategic goal established by the Lisbon European Council in March 2000: to become the most competitive and dynamic, knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable growth with more and better jobs within a decade.
The Action Plan tackles issues such as human resources in life sciences, research, management of biotech companies, legal issues, intellectual property rights, access to finance, networking of players in this field, the role of public authorities and regulators, public debate and dialogue with stakeholders, ethics, pharmaceutical legislation, GMO regulation, the international framework, and EU policy in developing countries (including agriculture, genetic resources and health).
Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen added: "Practically the entire European biotechnology industry is facing difficulties due to the collapse in investor confidence in knowledge-based industries.
If a large number of enterprises were to fail, it would seriously undermine knowledge that is critical to the long-term competitiveness of major European industries. Concerted action, involving public authorities as well as the private sector, is needed to improve the investment climate for biotechnology in Europe."
On the subject of life sciences the Commission stressed that rapid advances in life sciences have created high expectations for curing diseases and improving quality of life, while raising concerns as to their ethical and social consequences. The Commission yesterday underlined its commitment to ensuring that ethical, legal, social and wider cultural aspects are taken into account in policy-making and research funding.