A 9 billion euro (US$112.6 billion) injection of research funds into information technology research over the next seven years hangs in the balance Thursday, as an ethical debate about whether the European Union should fund stem cell research threatens to delay the approval of the whole 54 billion euro research budget, people close to the debate said Thursday.
The research budget for the next seven years may not be approved in time for the beginning of next year if Slovenia carries out its threat to join a blocking minority of countries opposed to the inclusion of stem cell research in the overall spending package.
The spending program, called “framework program seven” or FP7, devotes the largest amount of money ever to information and communication technology research. Projects to benefit from the public funding include the Galileo satellite project, which aims to offer a more accurate alternative to the U.S. GPS currently in use worldwide.
Previous research programs have played an important role in the development of technologies, such as the global system for mobile communications mobile phone standard and the asymmetric digital subscriber line broadband standard.
Until now, the ethical debate over the use of stem cells in research has been less intense in Europe than in the United States, where President Bush Wednesday vetoed federal spending on stem cell research. But that could be changing.
“The Slovenian government has raised worries about including stem cell research in the budget at recent meetings,” said Timo Haapalehto, councilor for research at the Finnish permanent representation to the European Union. Finland currently occupies the six-month rotating union presidency.
Meanwhile, the Italian Parliament debated the issue of stem cell research late Wednesday, and on Thursday agreed not to stand in the way of devoting European research money to stem cell research.
Italy is one of seven countries that signed a declaration at the end of last year calling for the exclusion of stem cell research from European spending. The other six are Malta, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia.
However, when the government of Silvio Berlusconi lost to the center-left coalition headed by former European Commission President Romano Prodi last month, Italy withdrew from the declaration. The debate in the Italian Parliament Wednesday made no changes to this revised position.
Although Slovenia carries less voting weight than Italy, it would still create a blocking minority along with the other six countries, said Haapalehto. “It would be possible to block any decision, even without Italy,” he said.
If science and research ministers fail to sign off on FP7, the European Parliament will not have enough time to hold a second debate on the shape of the budget agreed to by national governments later this year, said Antonia Mochan, a spokeswoman on science and research topics at the European Commission.
But she added that there will be a lot of pressure on countries not to scupper the research budget timetable.
“Whether those countries that have signed the declaration are ready to block the budget has yet to be seen,” Mochan said.
European religious groups have attacked plans to spend around 1 percent of the European Union’s research budget on embryonic stem cell research, but have had little sway over the majority view that the research is vital for treatments of diseases such as diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which are on the rise in Europe’s aging population.
The commission, the union’s executive body, has proposed adopting the same approach to embryonic stem cell research in FP7 as in the previous research budget, FP6, agreed to in 2001. The budget allows stem cell research using embryos that would otherwise be destroyed, such as those created during in vitro fertilization treatment. Scientists would have to get research approval from a scientific committee, as well as two ethics committees, to receive union funds.
Priorities for future union IT research are still being discussed, but will include areas essential for technological innovation and growth in Europe such as nano/micro technology, embedded systems, photonics, robotics, fixed/wireless communications, software engineering and architectures. Major research challenges are also likely to be addressed such as biomedicine, intelligent vehicles and IT’s applications to assisted living.
More information about FP7 is available here.
-Paul Meller, IDG News Service (Brussels Bureau)
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