Stem cells and research funding in the EU
As the consultation on the next research funding cycle in the EU is launched, the financing of human embryonic stem cells research will likely be reassessed
The European Commission (EC) launched a public consultation, which will close on 20 May 2011, on the next research funding cycle in the EU with a Green Paper (COM(2011)48) called “From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards a Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation funding”, accompanied by a Questionnaire.
The Green Paper tackles funding of research and innovation programmes, taken together in a Common Strategic Framework (CSF). In the current programming period, these programmes include the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP). The Commission plans to put forward its formal legislative proposals for the CSF by the end of 2011.
The EC sees the EU funding of research and innovation projects as a specially important tool for achieving the goal of “smart growth” as enshrined in the 2020 Strategy. In this light, research funding must become more results-driven, with much importance being attached to efficiency and the performance of the projects, and emphasis being put on their concrete impact on society by means of turning knowledge into actual innovation in the market. Funds must also be allocated to projects with clear European added- value and must leverage other financial sources, either public or private, with the importance of public-private partnerships being underlined. Reference is made also to the intended ability of the financing to foster cross-border collaborative research and mobility and build European networks, and to help construct the European Research Area.
It is likely that the preparation of the new research programme will also open up the opportunity to reassess the funding of stem cells research. The position of the Church is well known in defence of the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human community and therefore the inviolability of the life of each one of us, whose value does not diminish in even the most vulnerable situations, at the beginning and at the end of life. Accordingly, COMECE’s Reflection Group on Bioethics has already issued a number of Opinions on the ethical wrongfulness of destructive research on embryos, which takes place with human embryonic stem cells (hESC) derived from an embryo in the early stage of development (blastocyst stage).
As far as FP7 is concerned, Article 6 of Decision No. 1982/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, of 18 December 2006, allows for research on hESC to be funded, although by a Declaration published in 30 December 2006 the European Commission guaranteed that no projects including “research activities which destroy human embryos, including for the procurement of stem cells” would be admitted; making clear, however, that “the exclusion of this step of research will not prevent (the EU) funding of subsequent steps involving human embryonic stem cells”, what has actually happened during the implementation of the Programme. It turns out that this Declaration, apart from its lack of genuine legal force, does not obviate the incentive effect of FP7 on (previous) human embryo-destructive research activities. Moreover, it retains intact a paradox of European integration: the fact that projects that make use of hESC lines whose use may be punished as a criminal offense in some Member States (MS) are eligible for EU support with funds collected from those same MS taxpayers.
Furthermore, despite the promises, hESC have not delivered so far, and this is likely to be taken into consideration when drafting the new programme. And although, finally, an announcement has been made concerning a treatment derived from hESC, in actual fact there have been continuous scientific advances in fields of research whose acceptance is broadly consensual among MS (adult stem cells, with now a considerable number of clinical applications, cord blood stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells). In itself, this constitutes one of the reasons why such fields are better fitted to fulfil the goals set down in the Green Paper with the view of achieving the “smart growth” intended by the 2020 Strategy. Finally, it is also noteworthy to take due account of the evolution of public opinion, with a higher approval of adult stem cell research vis-à-vis hESC research (see europeinfos, n.º 133, December 2010).